Obama Re-Writes History, Clinches Party Nomination

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama made history last night when he became the first African-American to win a major party nomination. His victory comes after one of the hardest-fought presidential primary contests in U.S. history. Political strategists Sara Taylor and Stephanie Cutter discuss the weight of Obama's win.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, four attractive young people, a camera crew, a luxury RV - yes it's a reality show, but with a twist. Four young Arabs go on a road trip to discover America. We'll tell you what they find out. And our series on investing continues.

But first, the longest running presidential primary in memory comes to an end, and it's official. Senator Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee, becoming the first African-American to win a major party nomination. His presumed Republican opponent Senator John McCain wasted no time in taking up the fight. He gave a speech that took aim at Obama's experience and philosophy. Meanwhile, Obama's erstwhile opponent Senator Hillary Clinton refused to concede. Here to give us a bit of perspective on it all are the two women we've been turning to throughout the last few months. Sara Taylor, a Republican strategist, former director of political affairs for President Bush, and Stephanie Cutter, Democratic strategist and communications director for Senator John Kerry's 2004 White House run. Welcome back to you both.

Ms. SARA TAYLOR (Republican Strategist, Former Director of Political Affairs for President Bush): Welcome, thank you.

Ms. STEPHANIE CUTTER (Democratic Strategist, Communications Director for Senator John Kerry's 2004 White House Presidential Campaign): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Stephanie, let me start with you because this is a Democratic night. You've had a front row seat for a lot of big events. Watching last night, did it feel historic?

Ms. CUTTER: Well, you know, Michel, it did. You know, it's hard to remember where we started just, you know, 15 months ago. Back then nobody thought it would be possible for Barack Obama to win the party's nomination. Last night was a real turning point not just for the Democratic Party but for the country and amidst the ongoing competition that went on between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the jabs that went back and forth between Barack Obama and John McCain. I think it's important for everybody to realize just how historic last night was.

MARTIN: Sara, what about you? I know you're not a Democrat, but…

Ms. TAYLOR: Not a Democrat, but it was a historic night for the country and, you know, certainly the Democrats, you have to give them credit. Their frontrunners and now nominee, you know, the first African-American, the first woman, and that's a good thing for the country. And we may not agree with their policies, and we'll have a passionate debate about why they're not right to lead the country, but it does show you how far America has come in the last few decades.

MARTIN: Stephanie, a lot of interesting symbolism all night. Obama appeared on the same stage in St. Paul, Minnesota where John McCain will accept the Republican party's nomination in September. What was the idea behind that, and was it a good one in your opinion?

Ms. CUTTER: I think that yes, it was a good idea. It really sets up the choice in this election. That in just a mere number of months, Republicans are going to be coming together across the country to celebrate their nominee John McCain and, you know, last night is where our nominee was accepting - finally crossed the hurdle of the number of delegates he needs to be our party's nominee. It sets up the choice. If you look at the words in both Barack Obama and John McCain's speeches, it really set up a generational fight. McCain kept referring to Barack Obama as his young opponent, and Barack Obama kept discussing some of the policies that have gone wrong over the past eight years and why it's really a time for change. So I don't think the choice could become any more crystal clear between Barack Obama and John McCain, and as Sara said we will have a full robust debate over the coming months. And I think both parties are anxious for it.

MARTIN: We'll talk about John McCain in just a minute because I want to play a little bit of his speech, but I want to pause on that for just a minute and talk a little bit about Senator Clinton. Let's play a short clip of what she had to say.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): This has been a long campaign, and I will be making no decisions tonight, but this has always been your campaign. I hope you'll go to my website at hillaryclinton.com and share your thoughts with me and help in any way that you can.

MARTIN: So, Stephanie, why is she doing this? There is no way, short of lightning striking, that she can be the nominee at this point. What is the point?

Ms. CUTTER: Well, nobody knows exactly the point except for Hillary Clinton, but a lot of us are assuming that she's just maintaining her political leverage. What does she want out of it? It's unclear at this point. It could be the vice-presidential slot, it could be retiring some of her debt, it could be having to do with some of her policy proposals. We don't really know, but it's clear that she is trying to maintain some political leverage in the waning days of the nominating contest. You know, she got tens of millions of votes - 17 million people came out and voted for her. She won a number of states. You know, she's earned the right for at least a couple more days to figure out how she wants to end this race, but I think Democrats are anxious to bring this contest to an end so that we can focus our sights on John McCain and winning the White House. And it's important for both Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and all of their supporters, to end this in the right way.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm talking politics with Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter and Republican strategist Sara Taylor about last night's events. Senator Barack Obama clinching the Democratic nomination and making history as the first African-American to win a major party bid. Sara, some Democrats have been calling an Obama-Clinton picket a dream ticket. Do you think it is?

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, I think that he's going to have to take a hard look at her given how close the contest was depending upon how you slice the numbers. You know, she may or may not be ahead in the popular vote. There's still superdelegates who haven't yet voiced their support for a candidate.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I just only have to clarify because we've talked so much about this. She's only ahead in the popular vote if you discount all the caucus states.

Ms. TAYLOR: That's right.

MARTIN: So - which I don't know. I don't know - all those people who stood in the snow in Iowa feel about that, but anyway, go ahead.

Ms. TAYLOR: But she - well, but, you know, she also has won very significant states that Barack Obama is going to need to win if he's going to be elected, and if you look at Pennsylvania and Iowa and Florida, even though he didn't campaign there, you know, she did well in those states. She has a very strong and important coalition for Democrats to win which is, you know, working class whites who, you know, tend to be historic, historically have been swing voters in elections, and so for any Democrat to win they need to do well and in a down economy, Democrats are poised to do well with that group. That's a group, though, that has supported Hillary Clinton very strongly. That's a coalition he's going to need to be able to speak to if he's going to be elected, so you can certainly make a case if you're a Hillary Clinton supporter as to why she makes a lot of sense for him. Only he can decide that. He's got to be comfortable with her. He's got to be able to pick up the phone and have a trusting relationship. And it's been a very bitter fight, so it strikes me as being pretty hard to put that together at the end of the day.

MARTIN: What about from a Republican standpoint? Would you enjoy running against that ticket or not?

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, you know, certainly there's very few things that they don't agree on candidly, so I think, you know, running against the nominee is really what matters because people are going to cast their ballot for the nominee, not the vice president. The vice president can certainly add some qualities to the ticket, but you know, Barack Obama, there's a lot to distinguish with between Senator McCain and Barack Obama, particularly on foreign policy, but also on domestic issues and so, you know, Republicans are going to have plenty to point to.

MARTIN: Stephanie, what about you? Dream ticket or not?

Ms. CUTTER: Well, if I could just go back to a couple of things that Sara said. In terms of Barack Obama's appeal to working-class voters, Barack Obama is getting the same amount, if not more, of those working-class voters than any other Democratic nominee. Now in a Democratic primary, between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the majority of them chose Hillary Clinton, but it is wrong to think that in a choice between Barack Obama and John McCain that all of those people are going to flock to John McCain, particularly when the economy is the numbe-one issue in the country, and 90 percent of the American people think the economy is going in the wrong direction. So, it's just a false argument that we are hearing over and over again from Republicans that he's going to have a problem with white voters. Now, the other thing, in terms of whether a Clinton-Barack Obama ticket, would be a dream ticket? It's not really comparable to tickets of the past because we've never had someone like Hillary Clinton in the number two spot. I mean she did get 17 million votes. She does have enormous name recognition. There are people across the country who have come out in waves to support her. So, it's not comparable to vice-presidential tickets in the past because you know, normally those people don't have the same name recognition, and you pick them for particular political purposes, like winning a particular state, or balancing the ticket on a particular issue.

MARTIN: I do want to say one - I'm sorry to interrupt Stephanie, I just wanted to save a couple of minutes to talk about Senator McCain who I think, you know, kind of - made kind of an in-your-face move last night by scheduling a big speech even before Senator Obama had taken the stage. I wanted to play a clip, but since we are sort of short on time, just wanted to ask if this was a show case moment - with very mixed reviews today about his performance. Sara, what did you think? Did you think that he took advantage of that opportunity?

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, look, I think what you see - it's - the general race has started. John McCain, you know, has a significant disagreements with him, particularly with foreign policy and you know, he set out right last night, and you know we have a very short time between now and the conventions and ultimately now and November. And he's going to not waste any days in making this debate.

MARTIN: I know, but reading the speech is one thing and seeing it is another. And a lot of people talked about his demeanor. They said his performance seemed flat in contrast to the kind of inspirational soaring moment represented by the Democrats. That he just - he didn't seem very energized?

Ms. TAYLOR: Well, you know, I don't know if I would say he wasn't energized. I think it was probably the difference in venue. And look, this was Barack Obama's nomination moment, and he was surrounded by 15,000 people, and John McCain was in New Orleans and did a smaller event. So, you know, really what matters is the substance of what they are saying. And as Senator McCain pointed out yesterday is he's going to draw a big contrast between, you know, being able to be a reformer and being somebody who says he's for change for the sake of change. And I think that, you know, if you look Barack Obama's positions on meeting with terrorist nations which is a - going to be a huge, huge point of contention in this debate and something that Americans I think take stock in when they vote for president.

MARTIN: OK, to be continued. Stephanie, we have about 30 seconds left, and I just cannot let you go without asking you - because you are joining us from North Carolina, where you've been assisting the Kennedy family and dealing with all the issues surrounding Senator Ted Kennedy's surgery. Can you just give us a brief update on how he's doing?

Ms. CUTTER: Oh, thanks. He's doing great. The doctors couldn't be more pleased with how the surgery went on Monday. And you know, he's the same old Ted Kennedy and up and walking around the hospital, looking to go home as soon as possible. You know, he's going to take this fight on like he's taken everything on in life, with vigor and strength.

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. CUTTER: So, it's great to be down here - to be with him, and to have worked with him and to call him my friend.

MARTIN: All right.

Ms. CUTTER: It's a real honor.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you for that. Stephanie Cutter, Democratic strategist, joined us by phone from North Carolina. Sara Taylor, Republican strategist, was kind enough to join us in our Washington Studio. Ladies, once again, thank you.

Ms. TAYLOR: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Obama Claims Nomination, Making History

Analysis

NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving says Hillary Clinton's supporters are now likely to look for scapegoats to explain her loss. Who Did This to Hillary? he asks in his column, "Watching Washington."

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton at Baruch College in New York. i i

hide captionNew York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the crowd at her primary night event at Baruch College in New York, June 3, 2008.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton at Baruch College in New York.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the crowd at her primary night event at Baruch College in New York, June 3, 2008.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama secures enough delegates to win the Democratic Party's nomination. i i

hide captionObama stands on stage with his wife, Michelle, at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul. He made history by capturing the Democratic presidential nomination as the first black candidate.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama secures enough delegates to win the Democratic Party's nomination.

Obama stands on stage with his wife, Michelle, at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul. He made history by capturing the Democratic presidential nomination as the first black candidate.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband. i i

hide captionHillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, during her speech at Baruch College.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband.

Hillary Clinton gets a hug from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, during her speech at Baruch College.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters. i i

hide captionObama greets supporters at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters.

Obama greets supporters at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Barack Obama stood before a cheering crowd in a Minnesota convention hall Tuesday night, declaring himself the Democratic presidential nominee. His speech marked the end to what has been, at times, a bruising five-month-long campaign that history will remember as resulting in the first African-American to win a major party's nomination.

Obama called it "a defining moment for our nation."

A few hours earlier, his main rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, refused to acknowledge Obama's clinching of the nomination during a speech to a boisterous crowd at Baruch College in New York City. Clinton said she was not ready to make any decisions about her campaign's future. At the same time, the New York senator said she was "committed to unifying our party."

Obama secured more than the 2,118 delegates needed to win the Democratic Party's nomination after two final primaries on Tuesday — in South Dakota and Montana — which resulted in a split decision. Clinton won South Dakota, where she and former President Bill Clinton had made several campaign appearances in the past week, while Obama captured Montana.

Obama, appearing on the same stage in St. Paul, Minn., where Arizona Sen. John McCain will accept the Republican Party's nomination in September, wasted no time pivoting to the general election that lies ahead. Sounding a theme that has already become familiar and will likely become more so in the weeks and months ahead, Obama said McCain "decided to stand with George Bush 95 percent of the time" in the Senate last year.

Eyes on General Election Battle

Obama charged that McCain "offers four more years of Bush economic policies that have failed to create well-paying jobs, or insure our workers, or help Americans afford the skyrocketing cost of college."

And turning to Iraq, Obama said, "It's not change when [McCain] promises to continue a policy in Iraq that asks everything of our brave men and women in uniform and nothing of Iraqi politicians — a policy where all we look for are reasons to stay in Iraq, while we spend billions of dollars a month on a war that isn't making the American people any safer."

The Obama campaign estimated some 17,000 supporters were inside the convention arena. They heard Obama give the kind of rousing speech that has become his trademark in the campaign.

"America, this is our moment," the 46-year-old Illinois senator and one-time community organizer said. "This is our time — our time to turn the page on the policies of the past."

McCain took advantage of the focus on the Democratic primaries to deliver a speech in New Orleans in which he criticized Obama for voting "to deny funds to the soldiers who have done a brilliant and brave job" in Iraq.

The 71-year-old Republican said Americans should be concerned about the judgment of a presidential candidate who has not traveled to Iraq, yet "says he's ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang."

Standing before a green banner that said "a leader we can believe in," a play on Obama's campaign slogan "change we can believe in," McCain said, "The choice is between the right change and the wrong change, between going forward and going backward."

The Clinton Question

The biggest remaining question at the end of the lengthy primary season: What are Clinton's plans for going forward? During her speech Tuesday night, Clinton indicated she continues to believe that she would be the stronger candidate in the general election against McCain. But a parade of previously uncommitted superdelegates marched into the Obama camp Tuesday, closing off that option.

Obama lavished praise on his erstwhile rival during his speech in St. Paul, asserting that the Democratic Party and the nation "are better off because of her," and that he is "a better candidate for having had the honor to compete" with Clinton. One course of action would be an Obama-Clinton ticket, a possibility Clinton encouraged in a conference call with the New York congressional delegation on Tuesday, saying she was "open to it."

But the Obama campaign is thought to be cool to the notion of Clinton as a running mate, leaving unanswered the question the candidate herself posed Tuesday night: "What does Hillary want?"

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: