TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One of the architects of the Republicans' "hell, no" strategy, the decision not to compromise with President Obama, is the presumptive new speaker of the House, John Boehner. The 10-term Ohio representative and current House minority leader will not only be facing a fight with Democrats, he'll face divisions within his own party as he's joined by new members of Congress who were elected with support from the Tea Party.
My guest Todd Purdum says in spite of Boehner's current oppositional tactics, Tea Partiers despise the kind of pragmatic deal-making that have made him a major player. Purdum is Vanity Fair's Washington editor. He's a former New York Times White House correspondent.
Purdum recently profiled John Boehner. He's also profiled Sarah Palin, Bill Clinton and John McCain. In September, he wrote about a day in the life of President Obama. We're going to talk about John Boehner, the Tea Party and some of the key election results.
Todd Purdum, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the presumptive new speaker of the House, John Boehner. He sent a clear message to the Tea Party. He said: I'll never let you down. What has his relationship been to the Tea Party up to this point?
Mr. TODD PURDUM (National Editor, Vanity Fair): His relationship to the Tea Party has been correct. He has been - he's attended their events, including one in his own district. He's urged his members to get out and meet with Tea Party activists.
I've heard him say in small settings with reporters that Tea Party activists are just like any other ordinary Americans, and he's been careful to say how many of them are getting involved in politics for the first time and sort of what a positive sign that is.
But he has not embraced every jot and tittle of the Tea Party agenda, and he certainly has not embraced the kind of white-hot rhetoric of some Tea Party activists.
He's an institutionalist by predisposition, and I think he will show respect to the Tea Party, but I would be shocked if he somehow becomes a full-throated embracer of every aspect of that agenda - which, as you know, is in some ways riven with internal contradictions, and it's hundreds of different kind of groups that could be said to make up the Tea Party.
GROSS: Well, one of the contradictions is that it's very anti-government. Now it has representatives in government.
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Mr. PURDUM: Exactly, exactly. And, you know, it's sort of like Pogo. I mean, they've met the enemy, and it's us. And I think it'll be interesting to see how people who have won office on campaigning against government actually behave in government, because John Boehner well knows how hard it is to lead, how hard it is to sustain a majority.
You know, he was elected the majority leader and, a few months later in 2006, saw his party lose in the midterms. So he knows what it's like to have power, and he knows what it's like to lose it.
GROSS: So what are some of the areas in which John Boehner agrees with the Tea Party agenda and some of the areas in which he doesn't?
Mr. PURDUM: There are a number of areas in which John Boehner agrees with the Tea Party. I would say on the sort of broad economic agenda of smaller government - as he often says, less intrusive government - I think he embraces that viewpoint pretty clearly.
To the degree that some aspects of the Tea Party think that large swaths of what the government does is unconstitutional or, you know, think that Congress' actions under the Commerce Clause have, you know, have usurped powers correctly reserved to the states, I don't think John Boehner subscribes to that at all.
So I think he'll be, you know, he'll be careful not to try to offend them, but I think he'll - he's made it clear that he wants to focus on the bread-and-butter issues of the economy: taxes, government spending and that kind of thing. And if he does that, he'll probably get respect from them on those points.
GROSS: Let's talk about what the Tea Party thinks of John Boehner. You wrote something very colorful about this in your profile of Boehner. You describe Tea Partiers as looking askance at Boehner's long tenure in leadership, his close ties to lobbyists and his two-pack-a-day baritone and retro Rat Pack persona.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, John Boehner is kind of a rare figure in modern American politics. He's a colorful person. He's a throwback to an earlier time. He's not afraid to acknowledge that he smokes and has a drink at the end of the day. He doesn't pretend to be morally pure or ideologically rigid.
And I think some of the Tea Party elements are, in fact, you know, quite simon-pure, and John Boehner is not that. John Boehner is also not a fresh face. He's been around Washington for 20 years. He's been in and out of the Republican leadership, first in the Gingrich era, then later on after he succeeded Tom DeLay.
He is close to lobbyists. You know, he once famously passed out checks from the tobacco industry on the House floor before a vote on tobacco legislation. He's come to regret that and said that he did.
But he's - you know, he's an interesting figure, because he sort of stands at the transition between the modern politics that we're experiencing today with social media and the instantaneity of the Internet and all the rest of that, and the kind of old-fashioned ward politics that predominated in the middle of the 20th century. And he's definitely an heir to that kind of politics.
GROSS: So what are his ties to lobbyists? What else can you tell us about that?
Mr. PURDUM: When John Boehner was on the Gingrich team in the 1990s, he had a famous gathering called the Thursday Group, in which he had favored lobbyists and other supporters come into his office once a week, and they talked things over.
I mean, I think - I don't know that he has extraordinarily deeper or more complex ties to lobbyists than, you know, many veteran members of Congress do. But he's never made a secret of the fact that he doesn't think, you know, lobbyist is a dirty word, and he's perfectly willing to meet with people who have interests before him.
And, you know, he rented an apartment from a lobbyist. He's definitely, you know, unapologetic about his association with lobbyists.
GROSS: Do you have a sense of what John Boehner's priorities would be as House speaker?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, he's been somewhat careful not to get specific about them, in part because he doesn't want to leave off his own list something that's very important to either, say, the Tea Partiers or to the young guns on his own leadership team.
But I think the one thing he has said over and over again is that he wants to focus on the economy. He wants to focus on jobs. He wants to focus on cutting government spending. That being said, the proposals he's actually specifically announced really amount to making the Bush tax cuts permanent at all income levels and, you know, he's not been very serious, frankly, about specific proposals for cutting spending to the degree that it would be really necessary to make any impact on the debt or the deficit.
I think everyone in Congress will be watching what the president's commission does. It's due to report on December 1st. That's the Commission on the Debt and Deficit, headed by former Senator Al Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House chief of staff.
And I think a lot of members of both parties are probably looking for some political cover from that commission's recommendations to see what they might do going forward. And certainly, the president is looking for that commission to give him some political cover and some political momentum to get a proposal going.
GROSS: One of the questions now is, you know, the U.S. has to increase its debt ceiling in 2011 in order to authorize the Treasury to borrow money to pay its debt obligations.
And Republicans have voted against this before, but they knew that they didn't have enough votes to actually stop the debt ceiling from being raised. So if the debt ceiling isn't raised, it would mean that America would default on its debts, and many predict that that would lead to global financial catastrophe.
Rand Paul wants to stop the debt ceiling from being increased. Do you have a sense of where John Boehner is on that?
Mr. PURDUM: I think this is one of those cases where John Boehner, as he did on the TARP bailout plan in the fall of 2008, he described it in, you know, pungent terms as not being a very palatable sandwich, but he urged his members to pass it all the same.
I can't imagine that one of the first things he would do as speaker of the House is to allow that to happen, and no one thinks that that would be a practical outcome.
So I think if he's anything, he's practical. He's going to be facing a lot of pressures, though, from the conservative caucus and from the freshmen who were elected yesterday, who are going to be putting a lot of heat on him to, you know, swing for the fences.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Todd Purdum, and he's national editor of Vanity Fair, and before that was White House correspondent for the New York Times.
John Boehner was one of the architects of the Pledge to America, that recent pledge that said Bush tax cuts should be made permanent, "government takeover of health care," quote-unquote, should be repealed, every bill that moves through Congress should include a clause citing the specific constitutional authority in which it is rooted. Do you think that's really going to be his agenda, that Pledge to America?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, I think some aspects of it will be part of his agenda. But, you know, the Republicans were careful to call it a Pledge to America, not a contract with America. And it isn't nearly as specific as the Contract for America was 15 years ago.
I don't think people really think Congress will - they may pass a bill requiring every bill moving through the House to have some specific statement of its constitutional authority, but I don't think people know what form that would take, and I think people think it - most serious people think it's kind of silly.
I think on health care reform, John Boehner will realize that an outright, flat-out, all-out repeal of the existing law is really unlikely for two reasons. One, the Senate's virtually unlikely to pass it, and President Obama would never let it get past his veto.
So I think what they may try to do is some pro forma effort to repeal the bill. But then they'll nibble around the edges, and they'll try to change it here and there.
And Haley Barbour was quoted the other day as saying that - that's the, you know, governor of Mississippi, the former chairman of the Republican Party. He said he thought that over the next couple years, Republicans would make so many small changes in it that it would be unrecognizable.
GROSS: Do you think they'll succeed in doing that?
Mr. PURDUM: I think they'll probably try, because it's been a really big flashpoint for them. And they think that it's very unpopular with the public.
Even though the polls continue to show that the public supports the basic constituent elements of the bill, they don't like the overall idea of the whole magilla, and that's been one of the - that's been, frankly, one of the Republicans' big rhetorical successes of the past 20 months is to make people say they dislike a bill whose specific provisions they largely embrace.
GROSS: Now, Tea Party members, as well as some other Republicans, including Senator Mitch McConnell, are calling for no compromise with Democrats. You describe John Boehner as one of the chief architects of the hell no strategy against Obama.
He tried to block the president's major initiatives, including the economic stimulus and health insurance reform. What did Boehner do to contribute to the hell no strategy? And I should say he's the one who actually yelled out "hell, no."
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, on the eve of the passage of health care last spring, he yelled on the House floor "hell, no." Well, I think what he did was, among other things, hold together, you know, a pretty unruly bunch of people who have a lot of internal disagreements, and he got them to vote in near lockstep with him against the president. And Mitch McConnell did the same thing in the Senate in a, frankly, just - you know, Mitch McConnell has been open in saying that this was to build the Republican team and to play team ball in the name of making a bigger team.
But I think John Boehner knows very well, because of his own experience, that it's one thing to get a majority, and maybe the way you do that is being obstructionist. I think it's very, very hard to retain a majority if all you do is say no.
And I think he and the advisers around him know that they have to put something in front of the House and in front of the American people that they can be for, as opposed to just be against, and that, you know, otherwise, two years from now, they'll find themselves right back where the Democrats are today, on the wrong end of the voters' irritation.
GROSS: Are there strategies that you think John Boehner is likely to use to block President Obama and to promote a Republican agenda? Do you think he'll try to change House rules?
Mr. PURDUM: He's actually talked about trying to change some of the House procedures in a different way, to allow more open debate, to allow Democrats to work their will, to allow the House to have more open exchanges and...
GROSS: More amendments?
Mr. PURDUM: Yes, more of what's known as open rules, in which legislation comes to the floor and germane amendments can be proposed from the floor rather than - you know, the way most bills come to the House now - and this has been true, it's been increasing over the past couple of decades - is that the Rules Committee sets very restrictive terms for debate and amendments, often allowing no amendments from the floor. And I think John Boehner feels that that is wrong.
And he's been frank to say that his own party is just as guilty of that as the Democrats and that, you know, he's been frank to say that he does not like the way the House was run under Republicans or Democrats.
Now, his ability to change it may be limited. Every new leader of the House in recent years has come in saying it's going to be more open, they're going to let the winds of change blow through. Nancy Pelosi promised that.
I think the general consensus is that Nancy Pelosi exerted the most iron-willed control over the House since Speaker Joe Cannon more than 100 years ago.
GROSS: Are there areas in which John Boehner agrees with President Obama?
Mr. PURDUM: Sure. They certainly agree on broad aspects of foreign policy, including the president's strategy in Afghanistan. I think they could probably find agreement on even something like extending the Bush tax cuts temporarily, because plenty of Democrats think that might be a good thing to do in the midst of this continuing economic downturn.
I think, you know, there might be some questions on education - which is an area where John Boehner has worked in the past - that they could agree on. It doesn't seem too likely there'll be any action on big hot-button issues like immigration or things like that. I think that's a more pessimistic outlook there.
Mr. PURDUM: Because the debate on immigration, for example, has moved so far away from where it was in 2006 and 2007, when President Bush was trying to get a kind of comprehensive, bipartisan bill through Congress with support from Ted Kennedy and John McCain, people on both sides of the aisle are so dug in, the issue has gotten so much more emotional, with things like the passage of Arizona's harsh immigration law, that members of Congress from both parties find themselves sort of unable to have a real or rational discussion about it.
And people like Senator McCain have completely backed away from the fray and show no interest in trying to get something done.
GROSS: Now, we've been talking about Congressman John Boehner as being a chief architect of the no-compromise policy, the no - the "hell, no" policy in the House. But you describe Boehner as having built a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker. When did he build that reputation?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, during the Bush administration, the second Bush administration, early on when President Bush was pushing his No Child Left Behind education reform act, John Boehner worked closely with George Miller, his counterpart on the House Labor and Workforce Committee and with Ted Kennedy in the Senate to pass the bill.
And at one point, when the White House wanted to cut out George Miller, John Boehner said he would walk away from the negotiations if they tried to do that.
Now, Congressman Miller told me recently that, you know, don't confuse that kind of golden moment of good feeling on an issue that seemed to be important to everybody with sustained bipartisanship. And he said that on other issues like the minimum wage and labor policy, that John Boehner was, you know, pretty uncompromising.
But I do think that Congressman Boehner came of age, you know, he came of age as a salesman. He was a manufacturer's representative in Ohio for a plastics and packaging company. And he loves to make a deal.
He's not really, by nature, an obstructionist. He's a back-slapper. He's a friendly guy. He's almost impossible not to kind of like at a human level. He's very engaging.
So I think he would much rather, if he can, make some deals and show some achievements and, you know, take to the voters in 2012 a record of accomplishment on issues that he feels are important, whether that's, you know, continuing to reduce taxes or making some serious stab at cutting government spending.
And people in both parties - whether that's Steny Hoyer, who presumably will be the, you know, continue to be in the Democratic leadership of the House - say they can work well with him.
Harry Reid said just today that he thinks he can work well with John Boehner. And I certainly think that the Obama administration would rather have someone like John Boehner than some of the younger lieutenants who are around him who are much, frankly, harsher and more willing to take a harder line.
GROSS: In some ways, Boehner's going to have to embrace bipartisanship within his own party.
Mr. PURDUM: Absolutely.
GROSS: Because the party's pretty divided right now. What are some of those divisions that Boehner's going to have to deal with in the House?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he's going to have to deal with a crop of incoming freshmen who got to Washington by railing against it and by promising to sort of change it overnight.
He knows things can't be changed overnight, and he knows you have to work within the system if you want to get anything done. He will have to steer clear of the divisive debates over social issues, whether that's abortion or gay marriage or whatever. John Boehner's not particularly interested in those issues. He's never really tried to mix it up on those issues. I think he thinks getting mired down in debates on topics like that would be a distraction from the larger Republican agenda he hopes to pursue.
GROSS: Since you've profiled Boehner, before we get any further into his politics, can I just ask you if you found out anything about his sun-tanning look, like how he achieves it? What are his secrets?
Mr. PURDUM: It seems an indisputable fact that dark skin runs in his family. His sister is very dark-skinned. I've seen pictures of him in high school where he's clearly the darkest-skinned guy in the group.
He says emphatically that he's never used a tanning product, that he's never been in a tanning bed, sort of the way President Reagan used to insist that his dark, wavy hair was really all his own color, and he wasn't helping it.
And, you know, I think you have to take him at his word on that. And as I say, you can look at his family and see that they really do have a lot of dark skin in the family.
GROSS: Okay, thank you for the insight. Back to politics.
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GROSS: So John Boehner actually started as a Democrat. Why was he a Democrat, and why did he change, and when did he change to being a Republican?
Mr. PURDUM: He was a Democrat because he was born in a big, Catholic family in suburban Cincinnati. And he was a John F. Kennedy Democrat. His family was hugely proud of the first Catholic president. He went to an all-boys Catholic high school.
And in the way a lot of working-class Catholic men of his generation did, he became more and more conservative as time went on because of the kind of social debates of the '60s, the lack of faith in government and, in his case, because he began making real money.
He's talked about how in 1978, he paid more in taxes than he had in gross income just two years earlier, and that got him thinking about whether he really could call himself a Democrat anymore. Plus, he took a look at Ronald Reagan and liked what he saw.
But, you know, he grew up in a great, big working-class family. He's one of 12 brothers and sisters. He's the second-oldest. I asked his older brother how much older he was, he said 362 days older. So they had a lot of diapers all the time hanging around the house.
His father ran a tavern. He worked every job he could do, from bottle sorter to busboy and waiter and finally as he, you know, got older, to bartender. And he's often said that that experience taught him how to deal with every jerk that walked into the bar, and it's been the secret to his managing life in politics, where you have to deal with a lot of obstreperous people.
GROSS: Boehner won his seat in Congress in 1990 after serving three terms in the Ohio state legislature, and then in '94 he helped draft the Contract with America along with Newt Gingrich. Just refresh our memories about what the contract was and also what Boehner's role was in writing that.
Mr. PURDUM: Well, Boehner was part of the leadership team. He ultimately became the number three person on Gingrich's team. The Contract with America was a pretty detailed 10-point plan that called for a series of measures, ranging from a balanced budget amendment to term limits for members of Congress, and much of it never wound up getting enacted for various reasons, but the House Republicans did manage to have votes on almost all the elements of the contract, which is what they promised to do. So it was a governing agenda. It was a big philosophical statement of purpose. They all lined up on the steps of the Capitol and unveiled it. And it was credited, rightly or wrongly, with really helping turn the tide and bring Newt Gingrich to power and bring the Republicans to the majority in the House for the first time since 1954 - first time in 40 years.
GROSS: So how powerful was he during that era when Newt Gingrich was the House speaker?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he was a comparatively junior member of Congress, so I mean you have to keep that in mind, but he was a trusted lieutenant to Gingrich. He came to grief when Gingrich's own regime fell apart over a whole series of problems, as we recall in 1998. Someone had to pay the price and Gingrich, as the kind of low man on the totem pole, was the one who took the fall. And a lot of members of Congress would have maybe retired or certainly given up efforts to be in leadership, but he made up his mind that he was going to claw his way back by being a legislator. So he went to work in the House Education Workforce Committee and bit by bit clawed his way back and got stuff done. And he told his aides at the time that he was never going to let them see him sweat, he was never going to let his fellow members know how disappointed he was. I think he had some pretty dark days privately, but he kept a stiff upper lip and went on. And you know, it was really a remarkable comeback.
GROSS: What kind of, like, behind-the-scenes relationship does Boehner have with Obama?
Mr. PURDUM: I don't think they have very much of one. Boehner's aides tell me that they don't really have much of a high-level relationship with people in the White House. There are some people in the legislative affairs shop who have sort of staff to staff level relations with them. Certainly John Boehner and Barack Obama do not have the kind of personal reality and experience in common that you could say Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton had. There was a level at which Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were able to take the measure of each other as wonky, super-political Southern guys of a comparable generation, and I think they each felt they had the other's number and could somehow understand each other. I don't think there's much in Barack Obama's life experience or worldview that would make him a natural, give him natural affinities with John Boehner. So it'll be really interesting to see how they are able to work together. Unless President Obama just wants to completely give up, I think they will have to work together to some degree because - or unless, you know, Congressman Boehner wants to lead an effort to impeach him, because they're going to be together for the next two years whether they like it or not.
GROSS: So when you look ahead to Congress, do you see gridlock or do you see movement to the right or the left? Probably not the left.
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Mr. PURDUM: I think you have to see there's going to be some movement to the right. The Senate, even though it's going to remain in Democratic hands, is going to be much more conservative. First of all, it's going to be a smaller majority - significantly smaller majority. The Republicans who've been elected are more conservative than either the Democrats or even in some cases the Republicans whom they replaced by and large, and it's going to be a very narrowly divided proposition. So on questions like nominations, judicial nominations and so forth, I suspect there'll be even more tough fights for the Obama administration. And certainly in the House, by the virtue of the Republicans being chairs of committees and having subpoena power to call the administration in to testify, already any number of chairmen have made it clear that they intend to call some Obama cabinet members on the carpet to ask them questions about various policies, and that could be a very annoying reality for the Obama White House.
GROSS: Because the Republicans now have the majority in the House, the committee heads are going to change; they'll be Republicans now. Darrell Issa from California is going to head the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. What kind of power does he have in terms of subpoena power and what are some of the ways he might use that subpoena power?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, the majority has subpoena power sort of by definition. And, you know, Congressman Issa is an interesting case. He's actually one of the very richest members of Congress. He's shown himself to be kind of very independent-minded and something of a gadfly, and the nature of his committee is that he could probably find a reason to look into almost any cranny of the government that he chose to and he's indicated a willingness to do just that. So I think in some ways he is to the Democrats what Congressman Henry Waxman used to be to the Republicans, a real thorn in the side and a person who can cause them to spend a lot of time producing testimony and papers and evidence and coming up there and defending their work.
GROSS: Now, you recently wrote a piece about why Washington is broke and it was basically a profile of 24 hours in the White House, like a day in the White House. So let's talk a little bit about President Obama.
You say that, you know, his gamble has been - if you look after doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself. In other words, if you do a good job you don't have to worry about selling the job that you're doing. That doesn't seem to have worked for him during this election.
Mr. PURDUM: No. And in fact, in a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, my old colleague Peter Baker got President Obama to reflect on that very topic and President Obama acknowledged that that had been his view and that this is the message he was sending from the very top of the administration. He has since said he thinks, you know, he probably needs to work much harder at the selling and the communicating of what he's doing. That being said, it's not clear to me that the Obama White House believes it should make a fundamental course correction.
There certainly haven't been signs that, for example, that President Obama is importing a lot of fresh blood in terms of new staff or outside opinion. He seems to be, on the contrary, circling down on the advisers he's already relied on, including the interim and presumably perhaps permanent chief of staff Pete Rouse. He promoted his deputy national security adviser, Tom Donilon, to be the national security adviser and then promoted his trusted deputy, Dennis McDonald, to be the number two to Tom Donilon. So I'm not sure that he's in the frame of mind that would involve reaching out for a whole lot of fresh new ideas. I think he thinks he wants to keep doing what he's been doing but explain it better. And it'll be interesting to see whether he has any luck with that.
GROSS: Now, with his chief of staff - his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, gone, do you think there will be any basic changes in President Obama's political strategy?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, there'll be tonal changes because Pete Rouse is not the hot personality that Rahm was. But, you know, certainly if - one of the great puzzles is that Rahm Emanuel was hired as chief of staff because he knew Congress. And in fact, as we all know, the Obama administration did manage to get an extraordinary number of things through Congress, or at least a couple of really big things, including health care overhaul and financial regulatory reform. And the perverse message of the election from President Obama's standpoint is that he's being punished for his achievements, not for his failures. I mean, you know, it's not that people said he didn't do enough; it's that the Republicans have somehow persuaded the country that he did too much. So that's an unusual position for a president to be in. Obviously, I don't think there's so much appetite in the White House now for biting off such big chunks of legislative agenda. And, as I say, Pete Rouse as a person is a different kind of style of negotiator. He's a quieter, probably less polarizing figure. But I do think that the essential Obama posture, and thinking back to, you know, the troubled days of his campaign and so forth, is steady as she goes.
I was talking to a cabinet member this week and the cabinet member said, look, this guy is a fourth-quarter player. His eyes are absolutely steely. He's not giving up the fight.
GROSS: Now, you've written about Sarah Palin. What do you think the results of yesterday's elections show about her influence?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, she had influence in some places and not in others. Some of the people that she backed, like Christine O'Donnell, came to grief. Significantly, two of the most prominent female candidates in the country - Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, running for governor and Senate in California - gave Sarah Palin a very wide berth. They managed to find other things to do when she was in California one day for a big rally a few weeks ago. So I think, you know, Sarah Palin, as Oscar Wilde once said, she's the sort of thing you like if you like that sort of thing, and she is incredibly polarizing and the people who like her love her to death, and the people who can't stand her really can't stand her.
And I think she has to be used very carefully, probably, as a surrogate and as an influence in politics. And, as we've seen in the last week or so, there have been a lot of buzz about how members of what's left of the Republican establishment are actually quite nervous about Governor Palin because they think she could run for president. They think it's possible she might win a few primaries or even win the nomination. And I think most Republicans think that that would be an absolute disaster for their party. I know for a fact that the Obama people have long thought that the best thing that could ever happen to President Obama is to have her as his opponent and that he would wipe the floor with her.
GROSS: Why are Republican leaders afraid of a Sarah Palin nomination?
Mr. PURDUM: I think they're afraid of her because they know that she is a polarizing figure who turns off - by and large turns off - independents, and independents at the end of the day are the people you really kind of want to get to win the general election. I think they also have a lot of fear that she is undisciplined and not very diligent about doing her homework, and that to win the presidency you have to put together one good month after another, and some person who worked with Governor Palin on the McCain campaign said that they didn't really think she was capable of putting together five good days in a row. Even someone like Karl Rove was recently pretty critical of Governor Palin; he's saying he didn't see how her new reality show about Alaska, in which she said at one point she'd rather be out in the wilderness than in some stinky political office, he didn't see how that would really help her persuade people that, you know, she should be president.
GROSS: Let's look at Rand Paul for a second. He won the Senate race in Kentucky. And he is a Tea Partier. He wants to repeal the 14th Amendment. I think it's fair to say he's to the far right of the Republican Party. What is he bringing to the table? What are his priorities and how do you think the party is going to react to him?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he's bringing a vivid small-government conservative libertarian philosophy that is, frankly, as much at odds with the establishment Republican ideology as it is with the Democrats. I think he's bringing to Washington a lot of lonely nights in the sense that he's not going to make that many friends in the Senate right away because he is going to be a passionate advocate for the things he believes in and, by and large, they will not be the things that even his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell, believes in. So he's something unusual in American politics. People like this come along every once in a while. He's really kind of a purist. And it'll be interesting to see what happens to him. You know, once upon a time a freshman senator would've made hardly any speeches or made them, you know, when no one was on the floor and sat back and listened, and I don't think Rand Paul is going to be the type of personality who's going to hang back and wait to see what happens, and he's certainly not going to let his partisan affiliation trump his own ideological views. He's not going to be a lockstep Republican on issues that are important to him.
GROSS: Do you see him as one of the people who wants to basically dismantle government but is now a member of it?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, he certainly - I think he wants to radically reconceive the mission of government, and he thinks that great swathes of what the government has come to do over the 20th century it has no business doing. And I really don't think that's a view that is shared by most people in either party. Most people in both parties think that you could tinker here and there and you could pull back or push forward, but I don't think most people want to repeal the 14th Amendment.
GROSS: Let's talk a moment about John McCain, who you followed on the campaign trail. You've profiled him. You say you think his lasting political legacy to his country may be making Sarah Palin into one of the most influential people in the Republican Party. I think that's not the legacy he was hoping for.
Mr. PURDUM: No, I don't think it's the legacy he's hoping for. But I think he's clearly not in the place where he wanted to be. It's an interesting thing about John McCain. You know, I wrote a piece recently trying to grapple with the question of whether the McCain we saw this year campaigning in Arizona to save his Senate seat and sort of flip-flopping and taking some very hard-line positions that were at odds with his past views, whether that was a John McCain who'd made necessary compromises to win or whether in some sense the circumstances John McCain was facing this year showed the kind of person, the kind of politician that he had really always been, which is sort of a ruthless survivor willing to do whatever it took.
I think that John McCain ended his 2000 presidential campaign thinking it was a wonderful ride and he'd experienced something he's never going to see again and that he'd be too old ever to run for president again. And then, as it turned out, you know, he supported President Bush in 2004 and he did run for president in 2006, '07 and '08, and he did get the nomination. And by that point, I think he really wanted to be president. And he wakes up every morning; I think I'm pretty sure he can't believe that Barack Obama is the president and he's not. And I think in some ways he'll never be the same again.
GROSS: So what is his place in the Senate now? How much power does he have?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, you know, John McCain is a senior member of the Senate, so he'll have the power of seniority. I believe he'll continue to be the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee. He'll be senior member of the Commerce Committee, I think, as well. But he's not the kind of person who would presumably be popular with a freshman ideologue like Rand Paul. His colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate have never particularly liked him.
He also did something that was unusual - would've once been very unusual. He went around the country this fall campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates and saying extremely harsh things about his colleagues, very harsh things about Barbara Boxer of California, very harsh things about Harry Reid. Now he'll obviously have to come back and face them and do work with them and it'll be interesting to see how that works itself out.
GROSS: So let me pull back for moment and ask you, what are the large messages you take from the election?
Mr. PURDUM: Well, I think in some ways the largest one of all is we're in a period of incredible political volatility. The last time in our country we went through a period like this you could argue was in the years after World War II, when between 1946 and 1952 the House changed hands repeatedly. In the 1952 midterms, which after all came just two years after the 1948 election, in which President Truman had his marvelous upset, railed against the do-nothing Republican Congress, brought Democrats back into power, just two years later in the middle of a really unpopular Korean War, Democrats thrown out again.
President Truman's aide, George Elsey, reports that that was the only time in his long experience of working for the president that he ever saw him the worse for wine. He'd had so much bourbon on the presidential yacht, Williamsburg, that he was, had trouble, he had to be helped to bed that night; he couldn't walk to bed under his own power.
There's no indication that President Obama is a similar tippler, but I think it just means that the public's impatient, the public is worried, the public is lurching a little bit from side to side and saying, we'll take a chance on you. No, we don't like what you did. We're going to take a chance on the other guy. And I think what it means in the short term is it's a very cautionary tale for John Boehner and the Republicans - and I think John Boehner's well aware of this - means they have to be very careful how they handle their majority or they'll lose it.
GROSS: It seems like some of the results have to do with who stayed home, people who voted in '08 who stayed home this year. And from the polls I've been hearing, a lot of African-Americans who voted in '08 stayed home.
Mr. PURDUM: Yeah.
GROSS: A lot of young people who voted in '08 stayed home.
Mr. PURDUM: There's no doubt that this electorate, as all midterm electorates tend to be, was older, whiter, more conservative. But you know, the bad news for the president - the really troubling news - is places like Wisconsin...
GROSS: Where Russ Feingold lost. Yeah.
Mr. PURDUM: Russ Feingold lost. Yeah. And that was a state that, you know, it's really hard for a Democratic president to win without a state like Wisconsin in his column. Ohio, obviously very disappointing too, although the race for governor managed to be, you know, somewhat close there. Pennsylvania, where Joe Sestak lost, despite the president's last-minute help. You know, Pennsylvania is a state that the president needs. Indiana, which he won, you know, two years ago, went decisively Republican for former Senator Dan Coats being returned to office. In Illinois, President Obama's own Democratic Senate seat was lost to the Republican Mark Kirk, and you know, that's a blow to him. Florida looks a lot redder this morning than it did two years ago.
So I mean, you know, there are some bright spots here and there for the president, like California, Colorado, if Senator Bennet manages to pull out a victory there. It looks like there's still hope in the Mountain West for Democrats to play. And, of course, the governor of Colorado, John - was won by a Democrat, John Hickenlooper, the mayor of Denver. So it's not an entirely bleak picture for President Obama.
And as President Clinton's experience in 1994 showed, there are worse things than having a foil to define yourself against. It's often easier for anyone to define himself in opposition to another entity than it is to explain, you know, what he's for, and we saw that with the Republicans these past couple years. It's very easy to be against Obama and that's a simple identity and people understand it. It may now be easy for President Obama to be against the Republican Congress and score points by doing so.
GROSS: So you follow politics pretty closely. What surprised you most about this election?
Mr. PURDUM: I guess I'd have to say what surprised me most about this election is just how dangerous it is in this political climate to say certain things can never happen. I mean if you looked at Christine O'Donnell on paper, I think you'd say, well, she could never beat Mike Castle to win the nomination for the Republican Senate seat from Delaware. It just wasn't going to happen. And yet it did happen. So it makes me wonder whether we shouldn't be awfully careful in the future about saying certain things can never happen, including, oh, well, Sarah Palin could never be president. You know, two years ago I think I would've felt quite confident in saying that. I still don't think it's very likely that she'll be president, but I guess I take away from this election season a certain caution in ever making pronouncements that are flat-out and absolutist because things happened this year that one wouldn't have thought possible.
GROSS: Todd Purdum, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PURDUM: Thanks for having me, Terry. A pleasure.
GROSS: Todd Purdum is Vanity Fair's national editor. You can find links to his profiles of John Boehner, Sarah Palin and other political figures, as well as links to NPR's election coverage, on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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