TERRY GROSS, host:
We're going to take a look back at the McCain campaign, and we'll look ahead to the future of the Republican Party. Our guest, David Kirkpatrick, wrote a series of articles profiling McCain for the New York Times. Kirkpatrick writes about politics and formally covered the conservative movement for the Times and has joined us several times on the show. He spoke this morning with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, David Kirkpatrick, welcome back to Fresh Air. You know, when John McCain gave his concession speech on election night, it was widely viewed as an honorable and gracious set of remarks. Do you think it was a relief for him to finally be able to say some nice things about Barack Obama?
Mr. DAVID KIRKPATRICK (Reporter, The New York Times): Well, I think the end was a relief. I think, in terms of nice things about Barack Obama, I mean, I think he sincerely thought that he, John McCain, would be a better president, and that Senator Obama, now President-elect Obama, will be quite a risky president. But that said, I think there were two things going on. The first was clearly, at the very end, once it was clear the race was over, there was evident relief at the end from Senator McCain. He just kind of loosened up.
And then the other thing to keep in mind is, you know, now is the time if there ever was a time to try to see things from Senator McCain's point of view. And if you think about it, you know, if you're at all a sensitive or a thinking patriotic American, it is no fun whatsoever to be cast as the opponent of what's likely to be the first black president in American history. And I think Senator McCain may have been at some level more conscious of that or discomfited by it than we had perceived. So, in a sense, I think there was probably a certain amount of relief on Senator McCain's part to be at last kind of on the right side of history, if you will.
DAVIES: You have written about and spoken on this program about the tension between John McCain's sense of himself as a man of honor and fairness, the tension between that and his political ambition and the need to at times, you know, be tough and engage in the kind of exaggeration and half truths that characterize political campaigns.
And since you spent so much time looking into his background and know his career so well, I wondered as you saw those television ads, which were so tough on Barack Obama, all of them beginning or ending with John McCain saying, I'm John McCain, and I approved this message - I wondered, were there times you could just feel him cringing?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: No. I mean, by all accounts, he stood by those ads. I mean, I think he really felt those were the ads - you know, the most outstanding one is the Bill Ayers stuff. And I think, in Senator McCain's mind, he was really calling attention to the fact that he felt Senator Obama had not been totally frank, that it wasn't necessarily that Obama supported the Weathermen, which, of course, he did not. But there was an honesty issue there, and probably, in Senator McCain's mind - and I'm taking an extra step here - I think he was troubled by what he felt was Senator Obama's opacity, that the guy was able to get away with being all things to all people, and at certain level, he's right.
But, you know, when we look back, and I bet, when Senator McCain looks back, he is going to find an element of redemption in his campaign in that he drew the line at Reverend Wright. You know, Reverend Wright, the pastor of Senator Obama's former church, is black, and as a controversial figure, he said a number of things that it's quite easy to take out of context and make to see him unpatriotic or maybe even in context made seem unpatriotic because they're denunciations of America.
Senator McCain said to his aides, that I'm not going to do. I'm not going to run ads calling attention to Senator Obama's association with Reverend Wright. Reverend Wright is a much closer associative of Senator Obama - it's much easier to make that stuff stick, but you would inevitably be playing on racial animosities latent in the American public. You would be playing the race card. Now, maybe there's an argument that says it would be bad for a strategist to do that because it could back fire on you, but the fact of the matter is that, before it got that far, Senator McCain said, no, we're not going to bring up Reverend Wright.
But you really have to sort of strain your mind to imagine what it would be like to be Senator McCain running this year, such an uphill battle, right? Unpopular president, he's 72 years old, and that's an albatross. The economy is sinking, and that hurts him because he's a Republican, and they've been in power. And that hurts him because he's a Republican, and they have less credibility there.
Everything is against him. It would have been - I can't tell you how many times I had conversations with colleagues where they said, you know what? He wouldn't have a chance except that Obama's black. Because you never knew. You just - nobody knew what the dynamic was going to be, and so Senator McCain had to get into this race knowing that his - the wind at his back, to the extent that he had one, was just race. And I don't think that's comfortable for anybody, certainly not Senator McCain.
DAVIES: You know, it raises a really interesting question about Senator McCain and his history. He did face this unique circumstance in this election of being the first candidate running against a black candidate from a major political party. And although he's a senator from Arizona, I think his family roots were in Mississippi. Tell us a little bit about his relationship with the issue of race.
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. Let me just say that is - I wrote a series of biographical articles about Senator McCain and, of course, the race. And that is one of my regrets. I think it's a general American failing that we assume that African-Americans have a race and white people don't have a relationship with race or a race. And, of course, they do. And I should have written an article head on about Senator John McCain and race because it's an interesting history.
He is from - his family does hail from Mississippi, where for many, many centuries, they owned a plantation, and on that plantation, they had slaves. In fact, last summer, there was a reunion of the descendants of the former slaves on the McCain plantation. And some of the white McCains were invited, and Senator John McCain's brother, Joe McCain, attended, as well as some others. And I think a good time was had by all.
But you can tell that this is a little complicated for Senator McCain because of the way that he performed in the 2000 election. He was asked, you know, did your family ever own slaves? And he said no, which was either a really idiotic lie or actual kind of quasi-deliberate self-deception because it was a Mississippi plantation. Of course they owned slaves.
And then again, one of the outstanding take aways from that 2000 race, when he ran in the Republican primary and lost a crucial battle in the South Carolina state primary, he, during the primary, publicly wrestled with whether or not he should condemn the use of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. At first, he seemed to criticized it. Then he read a kind of ambiguous statement saying to some people that it's traditionalism, but he read it in an almost theatrically-forced way, as though he's been forced to read it.
And then, afterward, you know, nobody remembered. Election's over. President Bush is president. Nobody remembers that whole affair. Senator McCain flies back to South Carolina to deliver an apology for failing to more fully denounce the Confederate flag. So, you know, maybe that's kind of a crazy like a fox way to build up his own authenticity and credibility with voters, which it may well be. But I also think it evinces a complicated relationship with his own family's racial history.
DAVIES: We have to talk about the Sarah Palin pick. Do you have a sense of how he came to regard the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as a running mate as the race came to a close and so much controversy surrounded that decision?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I don't know exactly how he in his own mind felt. And I think it will be a while before any of us gets a real sense of that. I think the moment of the Sarah Palin pick is going to be one of those kind of Rashaman (ph) stories, where different people involved in the campaign will tell different versions of how it came to be.
I think that there's no getting around the fact that Senator McCain himself made the decision. And I think, in a pivotal moment, he identified with Sarah Palin. He saw her as someone like him, who was an outsider determined to shake things up.
You know, at the moment - I should confess, at the moment it was announced, I thought, oh, I get it, you know, because he - the demands on Senator McCain at that point of the campaign were, one, somebody who's going to fire - he needed to pick somebody who's going to fire up his base, who's really going to pump up core conservative supporters because he had almost miraculously won the Republican nomination without them.
And two, he needed to distance himself from the party at the same time. And she did both of those things. She was wildly popular with conservatives, and she was an un-Republican. She was someone who'd taken on the party in her own state. So from a political point of view, I can see why it made sense and why it would appeal to him. I doubt that anybody involved with the campaign feels great about her right now.
DAVIES: John McCain now returns to the Senate as a defeated candidate. What course do you see him taking?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I think that's going to be pretty interesting to watch. You know, if he - if, at 72, he thought he was young enough to run for president, I imagine he thinks he's young enough to really do some damage in the Senate. He is a different person now than he was in 2000. His reputation has changed, and I think his motivation has changed.
I've talked to people around him, and, you know, he came back to the Senate in 2000 with a real grudge against President Bush, a kind of personal dislike for President Bush. And I think that fed his appetite for collaboration with the Democrats. In a closely divided Senate, collaborating with the Democrats one day and the Republicans the next also turned out to be a way for him to kind of maximize his own political power. In this context, many, many people who were with him in the last days of the campaign or were close to him say he has no feelings like that whatsoever towards President Obama.
I think a lot will depend on how President Obama plays his cards. I think, if President Obama - President-elect Obama reaches out proactively to Senator McCain, that could turn out to be a profitable collaboration. I think, at this point, Senator McCain may have something to prove in showing that he is still kind of above the partisan fray and willing to work across the aisle.
On the other hand, the thing about Senator McCain is, you just never know. He's a thoroughly unpredictable politician, and because he's guided so much more by his own sense of honor and sense of who he wants to be than any ideology or partisan loyalties, you just never know.
DAVIES: We're speaking with David Kirkpatrick. He is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
If you're just joining us, our guest is David Kirkpatrick. He is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times who has written widely about John McCain and conservatives over time. And we're talking about the election that just occurred and the future of the Republican Party.
Well, David Kirkpatrick, you know, it wasn't so long ago that people were talking about a permanent Republican majority in the United States with some credibility. And now, we've kind of - the party is in retreat. And there's a lot of complaining and carping and infighting and soul-searching among conservatives and Republicans. What fault lines do you see in the party today?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Well, there's always the perennials, right? There's always the three kind of rough constituencies that make up the right and the Republican Party, the national security folks and the limited government folks and social conservative folks. And, you know, when something like this happens, when something goes wrong, each constituency points fingers at the others and says, well look, if you hadn't been so social conservative and had paid more attention to my tax cuts, we'd be better off. Or, if you folks had been more serious about opposing abortion and hadn't been so hung up on those tax cuts, we'd be better off. But something more is going - that's kind of run of the mill.
Something more is going on now. There's a sort of deeper soul-searching. And I think, roughly, the lines I see are kind of the high right and the low right. And the low right says, look, we had the right message, but we've got to get back to our roots. And that means more populism. You know, maybe we need to take a tougher stray - a nationalist stand on trade or maybe on immigration but - or find a new way to sort of sell the idea of shrinking government. You know, maybe we ought to find new ways to get people really focused on the evil that is government spending.
The other side, a little bit more intellectual, says, you know, that populism stuff makes me uncomfortable because it's a cousin to get demagoguery. You know, you get into that, it's us small-town folks versus those big city liberals, that makes us as conservatives uncomfortable. It's not our kind of rhetoric.
You know what I think, says a conservative intellectual, is some of the ideas we've been pushing are getting a little bit threadbare, you know. Tax cuts have worked out great for us, and we indeed have lowered tax rates substantially, so much so that we're a victim of our own success. We can't just go out there and promise tax cuts anymore.
We need to think of something new, something newer than just shrinking the federal government, and we don't quite have that idea yet. You know, if, as one person said to me the other day before the election was over, look, if there were three or four great ideas about how - great conservative ideas about how we could help the middle class kicking around, John McCain would've run on those, but he didn't. He ran on the Bush tax cuts. And that didn't work out so well for him.
DAVIES: So the high right, are those in the kind of intellectual think tanks, something like with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, and the low right is who, Rush Limbaugh?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Rush Limbaugh. Yeah. There were - you know, an easy way to draw the line is Sarah Palin. The low right loves her, and the high right is embarrassed by her.
DAVIES: What about policy on Iraq and Afghanistan? How does that fit into the debate within the Republican Party?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: I would look for Republicans to begin distancing themselves from President Bush's Iraq policy as fast as possible. I think we're going to hear a lot of reminders from the right that the invasion of Iraq is not a completely organic growth out of traditional conservative thought. I mean, this was nation building. And now that it's no longer a conservative president taking the lead, I think you're going to see a lot of people on the right and gradually, sort of gently, people in the Republican Party and Congress moving around to become critics of that kind of foreign policy and maybe even that foreign policy in particular. So that's really something to watch for, I think, as soon as the (unintelligible) inauguration takes place.
DAVIES: You know, Fred Barnes wrote a piece in the Weekly Standard recently in which he said, you know, we're all so worried, but Republicans just need to be patient because Obama and the liberal Democratic congressional leadership will soon overreach and expose itself as, you know, captains of disastrous national policy. And we'll be right back in a position to get back into power. To what extent does that reflect a view in the party?
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: Oh, it reflects an enormously prevalent view in the party but not a very persuasive one. I mean, it's not a great idea to bet your future on the other guy making a mistake. So I don't think - you know, I think people may take comfort in that, and they may be right. You know, Obama with liberal Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate at his back may, you know, veer to the left and alienate America, and that will be great for the right. But I don't think that anybody seriously thinks that's a solution to the Republican Party's identity crisis.
DAVIES: Well, David Kirkpatrick, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. KIRKPATRICK: It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: David Kirkpatrick writes about politics for the New York Times. He spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, who is the senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcast of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.