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New Book Looks at Key Moments in Historic 2008 Election

September 7, 2009 at 9:33 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff speaks with authors Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson about their new book, "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election," which examines Obama's historic election.

GWEN IFILL: Now the story behind the stories of last year’s historic and consequential presidential campaign. Judy Woodruff recently sat down with Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson to discuss their new book, “The Battle for America 2008.” They spoke at the Knight Studio at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan Balz, Haynes Johnson, thank you both. The book is “The Battle for America 2008.” And it says it right here on the cover, “The Story of an Extraordinary Election.” You write there may not have been an election of this significance since 1980, maybe since 1932. Haynes, why?

HAYNES JOHNSON, co-author, “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election”: Well, I think the issues before the country were such that you couldn’t even see where we were going. The country was in trouble. The economy was tanking. People were turned off on politics. America’s standing was going down in the world. The Bush administration had sunk from the highest level accorded in the polls, 90 percent after the World Trade Center, down to where Nixon was when he resigns. And Americans are the most optimistic people in the world. They were not optimistic across the board. It didn’t matter where you were, whether you were a Republican or a Democrat, moderate or a liberal, conservative. They all felt the country was in deep trouble. And they were worried about the future. So, that set the stage for a dramatically important election. The stakes were tremendous. And they’re even greater today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And not to mention, Dan, an historic election in so many ways.

DAN BALZ, co-author, “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election”: So many ways, Judy. That’s exactly right. The cast of characters in this election made it historic, the first African-American with a real chance to become president, the first woman with a chance to become president. And let’s not forget about John McCain, a remarkable story, a POW, a war hero in a party that was in disarray and demoralized, trying to hold the party together that was in deep trouble.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You look at the three central characters of this book, Dan, in Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, full of contradiction. There’s contradiction in each one of those stories. Hillary Clinton, presumptive — everybody presumed she was going to be the winner. And then there were these terrible mistakes made in her campaign. And, yet, she had the fortitude to keep fighting until the very end. Help us understand why.

Clinton's "critical mistakes"

DAN BALZ: Well, she started this campaign certainly as the odds-on favorite to become the Democratic nominee and probably president, given this situation in the country. And, for much of 2007, she looked like she was going to be the nominee. She was performing at a level higher than Barack Obama. Barack Obama had a very rocky start as a candidate. She did not. She was doing very well.

They made a couple of critical mistakes. One was that they -- they cast her too much as the inevitable candidate, cast her too much as experience and strength, as opposed to change. And they did not figure out a way to deal with the great desire for change in the country.

I think the second problem was, Iowa was always her worst state. At a time when she was doing so well in the national polls, she was struggling in Iowa. And they never figured out how to crack the case in Iowa, so that, when she lost in Iowa, it completely upended her prospects of winning.

The third thing was she had a campaign of -- a campaign staff of very talented individuals, but who collectively were not a particularly strong unit. The Obama campaign team outperformed Clinton's team at crucial moments in the campaign. But, as you say, she came back when it was too late to be a very, very strong candidate, frighteningly good, David Axelrod told us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Contradictions with Barack Obama, too, because here was somebody who originally -- or, initially, people thought, oh, there's no way this guy, this newcomer can make it. But he turned out to be a very gifted campaigner, smart campaign manager. And, yet, he had those really, you know, almost huge mistakes in his campaign.

HAYNES JOHNSON: The thing that's fascinating to both of us, looking at Obama, you look at him now, he's so cool, he's so cerebral, he's on top in everything. And he was that way in the campaign, but not in the beginning. He was not a particularly good candidate. And he also had a lot of self-doubt, frustration. And I -- you didn't get that from the campaign trail. But, internally, there was this trouble. He was trying to find himself. And that made it a fascinating part of the characters and how they evolved, how they deal with it. It made it -- for writers, this was a dream.

McCain's contradictions

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you reflect that. And touching on John McCain, again, contradictions here, because here was the outsider of the Republican Party who became the standard-bearer and who -- who, you know, was facing -- you know, was all the headwinds that you have just described.

DAN BALZ: He started out -- having lost the 2000 primaries to George W. Bush, he started out with a decision that he was going to try to emulate the Bush campaign in his 2008 operation. That was a big mistake. It was just a kind of campaign structure that did not fit John McCain. He had been a maverick in 2000. He decided, to win the nomination, he had to become the establishment favorite. That also did not work for John McCain.

The money problems forced a collapse in his campaign in the summer of 2007. And, at that point, everybody wrote him off. Everybody said, John McCain is dead. He can't come back from this. No candidate has ever gone up as high as McCain did and then plummeted the way he did and come back. He adopted a strategy which was all he could do, which was last man standing and try to win in New Hampshire. He was blessed with opponents who could not take advantage of his weaknesses at that point in the campaign. And, as it played out, he was the last man standing to win the nomination.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Early on, Dan had a wonderful expression about McCain. He was Shakespearian in the sense that he was trapped by the prisoner of war. And he had supported George W. Bush on the war, the person who had beaten him. And he -- he never was able to get out of that box. It was -- talk about Shakespearian dramas. This was it.

The rise and fall of Sarah Palin

JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the -- one of the other main figures in this book, of course, is Sarah Palin. And you write, frankly, about how she was vetted better, I think, than a lot of people realized, but not necessarily well-prepared for a national prime-time campaign. What -- what did you learn, Dan, about her that may tell us something about her future?

DAN BALZ: Well, I mean, you're absolutely right. She was vetted in a legal sense more than people realized at the time. She was not vetted in a political sense, which was, they knew this was a risk, but they didn't take that into account as much as they should have. She was a person of great ambition. She was a person who had natural political talents, as we saw when she delivered that speech at the Republican Convention, which just brought the house down.

In those first weeks right after the convention, she was an extraordinarily strong candidate. But she did not have the depth. She did not have the experience. She simply was not ready for the national stage and the national scrutiny. And, as the campaign went on, her numbers went from very good to weaker and weaker, and particularly with the group that they needed help with most, which was moderates, independents, women who had supported Hillary Clinton who were a little disaffected by her defeat. In -- in no way was she able to attract them. And I think that we have seen since the election is that she has not been able to improve her standing beyond the base of the Republican Party.

HAYNES JOHNSON: She was a meteor. She took off, we all know, like this. All of a sudden, wow, it's going to change everything. The Republicans loved her. The country liked her. They were entranced by her. And then it starts going down and down and down. And she never came back. And then, of course, the economy, which is the other thing, the same thing when McCain never said, well, I -- the crashing of the economy ended September.

Obama's governing style

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much did this election tell you about how Barack Obama is governing?

DAN BALZ: Very good question, and a hard question, because the skills are in some ways quite different. He was, as a candidate, an extraordinarily inspirational figure. He -- he generated enormous passion around the country. And, clearly, on election night, there was a sense of history being made in this country that was shared not just by the Democrats who had voted for him, but by Republicans as well. I think this was a moment where the country said, we have achieved something here. Whatever happens after this, this is an important moment for the country.

Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, has often said politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. And I think that, for Barack Obama, governing in prose has proven to be more difficult. I think it is a learning experience for him. The campaign gave him certain skills that have not been easily transferable. It is hard to recreate the passion, the energy, the sense of hope and inspiration when you're in the middle of sausage-making on Capitol Hill. It is just a different environment. And I think that that's what he's been wrestling with.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Judy, we started on this book three years ago, not just to do another book on politics or presidents and so forth, but because we really did believe this was going to be a historic election. The stakes were so big for the country. And whatever happened, it would be a test, not only for the presidency, but for the people and our political system. And that's what we're seeing now. It's very tough. And whoever was going to be president was going to have one of the most difficult times since FDR in 1932, taking over all the issues before the country. And Obama is finding that. Is he handling it well? Is he trying to do to much? That's the story. That's the next phase. That's the next chapter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we're on the edge of our seats. Thank you both for talking with us, Haynes Johnson, Dan Balz, "The Battle for America 2008."

DAN BALZ: Thanks, Judy.


GWEN IFILL: You can watch an extended version of Judy's interview with Dan Balz Haynes Johnson. And you can also take a look back at "NewsHour" coverage of the 2008 election on our Web site at