Fallows On The News: Health Care, Sarah Palin

News analyst James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine talks with host Guy Raz about the big stories of the week including the health care fallout, Sarah Palin and the perils of bipartisanship.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

President BARACK OBAMA: This was a momentous week for America. It was a week in which, together, we took bold new steps toward restoring economic security for our middle class and rebuilding a stronger foundation for our future.

RAZ: President Barack Obama from his weekly Web and radio address talking about the passage of his health care plan.

With me for a look behind the headlines is James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. Jim, hi.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS: (News Analyst, The Atlantic): Guy, nice to talk to you.

RAZ: As we heard earlier in the program, Jim, in those clips of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator John McCain, after health care, the whole idea of bipartisanship seems dead, at least until after the midterm elections are over.

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure. And you could argue that objectively, it never existed, at least in these last two years. I think it's the case that of all of Obama's major proposals, there's only been one Republican vote, neither the House or the Senate, that he's ever gotten. So, objectively, Obama's pitch that he made to his campaign, coming to office of not red America or blue America, but united America has not really paid off.

However, there's the theory that the late presidential scholar Richard Neustadt used to say which is the presidential power is cumulative. If you win today, you're more likely to win tomorrow. And so the fact that he won is really important. The other is that Obama can keep talking bipartisanship knowing that he has a more or less unified majority on his side, and the Republicans are left more or less in the state of saying: No, no, no, we object, which in the long run has not been a winning strategy in national politics.

RAZ: But Jim, can that actually be a good strategy for winning seats in Congress?

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. And the fundamental reason, I think, is the gerrymandered nature of most congressional districts. Of the 435 congressional districts, only about 40 or 50 are genuinely in play election by election. And many of the others, they're so skewed towards an all-Republican or all-Democratic population that you can run on a fairly rabble-rousing platform of either side and win there. And that probably will be successful for the Republicans this fall. But in terms of winning another presidential election or becoming a real national majority party, historically, that kind of obstructionist message does not work.

RAZ: It's a message, Jim, that seems to be led in a sense by former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. And she's been stumping, as you know, for John McCain in Arizona. And let's listen to something she said yesterday.

Ms. SARAH PALIN (Author, "Going Rogue"): Louisiana's governor recently said, you know, we're being accused of being the party of no because we oppose some of the things that the administration's doing. The Louisiana governor says, well, no, we're not the party of no, we're the party of hell no.

(Soundbite of cheering)

RAZ: The party of hell no. Now, Jim, as you know, John McCain, he's facing quite possibly the primary fight of his career, a challenge from a conservative talk show host that seems to be pushing John McCain in a more conservative direction as well.

Mr. FALLOWS: Oh, sure. And if either of us were a novelist, we could write something about the change in the situation between Sarah Palin and John McCain or John McCain essentially invented Sarah Palin as a national figure less than two years ago. And now, he's trying to depend on her. He now has to explain away any Maverickhood and show that he's a rock-ribbed conservative.

What's really interesting to me about this is the difference between sort of the talk show wing of the Republican Party, Limbaugh, Beck, Fox News, I think in the long run, Sarah Palin and the elected people because the talk show people can really profit by having the enthusiastic backing of a minority. And elected officials, over time, can't do that.

RAZ: Jim, many Republicans who face difficult primary challenges, like John McCain, find that the fact that they may have cooperated with Democrats in the past has become a liability, just the idea of bipartisanship has become a liability.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. And this is a cycle in political party evolution that the Republicans are going through now resembling what the Democrats went through, say, 25 years ago or so. It's when a party is moving away from a mainstream appeal to a focus on the base. And predictably, it makes for an embattled tough minority. And to get a majority status, they have to be willing to reach across the middle because that's where more people are.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's the national correspondent for The Atlantic and he joins us regularly here on this program. You can check out his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thank you so much.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy.

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