'The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election'

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer; Author and Journalist
Tuesday, August 4, 2009; 10:00 AM

Pulitzer Prize winner Haynes Johnson and Washington Post lead political writer Dan Balz discussed their book, "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election," a chronicles of the presidential campaign from Iowa through Election Day.


Maryland: McCain's choice of Palin always seemed to me to be an attempt at appealing to female voters while placating religious conservatives, since the latter had strongly opposed him during the primaries. When the choice was announced, I thought of at least a half-dozen female GOP governors and senators who already had national prominence. But these would probably have been unpalatable to the religious right, not just because they were pro-choice but also because they were moderates.

Was that the thinking of McCain or some of his strategists? I suspect that McCain was really struggling against the continuing drift of his party toward extremism, which has become more apparent in the past year. Would you agree?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: Good morning to everyone. We are in New York today, which is the first day our book goes on sale in bookstores. We're happy to take your questions about the story of the 2008 election, the most fascinating campaign of our careers.

Now to Sarah Palin. There were several things about Palin that made her to attractive to McCain and his top advisers. One was to appeal to some of the female voters who had supported Hillary Clinton and were disaffected by Obama as the Democratic nominee. That was part of it. She was also new, fresh and had definite appeal to the conservative base.

But there was another significant factor, perhaps as or more important. McCain and his team needed to shake up the race and they also wanted a vice presidential nominee who could reinforce his earlier image as a maverick and reformer. She had won the governorhsip in Alaska as a reform candidate and McCain was drawn to that.

They also were fully aware that they were behind and stood to lose the election unless they did something dramatic. They thought it was a risk worth taking.


Niles, Michigan: I read your excerpt online about the Palin choice by McCain and advisors that the senior Senator from Arizona was risking a lot. I would say that the factors of the husband's political links to the Alaska Independence party is of significance beside daughter Bristol's out-of-wedlock pregnancy (she was an Abstinence-Only High Schooler). The lesson seemed to be "don't ask too much, just rely on Palin's hard-right fanatic following"; correct?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: We see it somewhat differently. Certainly one of McCain's goals for the convention was to energize the base, but also to find a way to reach out to reform-minded independents. Those may seem contradictory and they are.

The role of her husband was not much of a factor in the decision and probably didn't have much impact during the fall. The McCain team learned about daughter Bristol's pregnancy just before Palin was selected but concluded that it would not and should not be disqualifying. However, they hoped to get through the convention without the news coming out. On that, they misjudged.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Balz -- How did you distinguish between your day to day reporting of the campaign and the reporting you did for this book? Were you ever tempted to ask a source to make the information available immediately or was that never an option?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: Good question. We did some book-only interviews along the way, which my editors were aware of. The way I tried to work was to do book interviews on events long settled, and after the Post had fully reported them. For example, we had two splending pieces by Anne Kornblut and Peter Baker (now at the New York Times) about turmoil inside the Clinton campaign in January and March 2008. I interviewed people about those episodes much later.

Beyond that, much information was obtained long after the campaign ended, which is when people are more willing to discuss past history. We always operated with the idea that if something needed to go in the paper, it would, and that the Post would also have the opportunity to publish the fruits of the book reporting before anyone else.


Ocraoke Island, NC: Morning Dan and Haynes. I enjoyed seeing you on "Morning Joe" today and your comments prompted a question: do you think a man like Obama could have won in "normal times" (no economic crisis, no botched foreign wars) against a conventional Republican opponent? Do you think America really WAS ready for a black President, or were the times just extraordinary enough (and Obama's presence so profoundly reassuring) that the nearly-imnpossble actually happened? thanks

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: That's a really interesting question. Certainly the country was ready for change and Obama represented something different, more so than the other candidates. But voters weren't sure about him for a number of reasons and he had to reassure them, which he was able to do. Obama believed that his race would not prohibit him from winning and in fact believed that the country had changed enough that electing an African American as president was now possible. On that he was proven right. But there's no question that the convergence of problems in the country opened the way for his opportunity.


Alexandria, Va.: In the beginning of the Sarah Palin excerpt, you mention that she received a phonebook-sized briefing book. Yet, not another word about it, at least in the excerpt.

I kept expecting to read something like Republican operatives were shocked that she didn't open it. But...nothing.

Was this a tease to buy the book ?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: Hardly a tease. It was a standard campaign briefing book that included things like McCain's speeches, background on his positions on issues, etc. She was obviously not totally familiar with all those at the moment she was flying to Arizona, but from our reporting, she worked pretty hard in those early days to absorb the material.


Lyme, Conn.: As one who had predicted a year prior that the Republican ticket would be John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, I appreciate learning from you that possibility was closer than I had thought. I know speculating about what could have happened is just about the most inexact science there is, but what do you think might have happened had McCain decided to shake up the election another way: announce he truly is independent and a maverick and not beholden to Republican party interests, announce Lieberman is his choice, and those Delegates who don't like it, he would prefer they leave. Might that have sold? Or could the convention have blocked a Lieberman nomination? Or would a third party candidate doomed the McCain-Lieberman ticket? Would do you think might have happened?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: We think you have pretty much the question with you good questions. As Bill McInturff, McCain's chief pollster, told the rest of the team, picking Lieberman -- or anyone else who was pro-choice, for that matter -- risked blowing up the convention, with a floor fight over the VP nomination highly likely. That was the last thing McCain needed at that moment. McCain needed a consolidated base coming out of the convention, with the hope then that he could broaden his appeal. He was obviously in a very difficult position, which prompted him to take the Palin gamble.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I look forward to reading your book. We look back and forget that this election was not settled until close to the end. Here is my question from someone who was following the daily tracking polls: I know most experts track the slight uptick to Obama overtaking McCain to the economy. Yet, I track it more directly to right after the Vice Presidential debates. I believe while most Americans were praising Palin for meeting expectations and for being better than they thought, they also thought "no way do I want her anywhere near a chance at becoming President." Where do you place the moment Obama overcame McCain?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: We think it happened just before the vice presidential debate. It happened as the economy started to collapse, in mid-September, when President Bush was warned of the possibility of another Great Depression. McCain's handling of that period -- his decision to suspend the campaign, to call for a White House meeting, to say he would take down his ads, to call for a postponement of the first debate -- left even some of his supporters disenchanted. We think the election was sealed between the day Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt through the first debate in Mississippi.

Coincidentally there was Palin's interview with Katie Couric, which began a downward slide for her in the estimation of many voters. So her descent added to the problems of the Republican ticket, but the economy we think was more significant in settling the outcome.


Richmond, Va.: What is President Obama's biggest strength and what is his biggest actual or potential weakness?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: That's another good one. One of his strengths is his sense of history, his ability to step back and frame problems in a historical context. He is an admirer of President Lincoln and has studied his leadership closely as a guide to how he would like to lead. Certainly his skills as a communicator were important in his election and are important to him now as president.

His weakness may be that he tries to do too much too quickly, that he sets too many things in motion at once. That appears to be a problem right now. He will have to give people a better understanding of why he's trying to do what he's doing and provide greater reassurance to them to build support for his initiatives.


New York: Given the fact that John McCain would have been one of our oldest elected presidents, the haste with which Gov. Palin was selected was shocking to some. Did you compare this hasty process with the events surrounding the selections of Quayle or Ferraro, two notable candidates for VP whose qualifications for high office were also thought somewhat dubious? Did any of the McCain people concede that an error had been made, simply because of a desire to 'throw the dice' in the face of difficult odds?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: McCain was willing to take risks -- the old fighter pilot in him made him comfortable with a level of risk that most people aren't comfortable with.

The Quayle selection was different. Quayle actually had considerale experience and a pretty decent record in the Senate. He simply turned out not to be as strong in the public spotlight as President George H.W. Bush had assumed. Ferraro was a late choice -- Walter Mondale actually had decided to offer the VP slot to Dianne Feinstein, then to the surprise of his own advisers, changed his mind just before the pick. The Mondale camp had little time to vet Ferraro and her husband and paid a big price.

However, one thing to remember. Few candidates for president lose a race because of their VP selections. Bush obviously won in 1988 despite Quayle's problems and Mondale lost in 1984 because the country wanted another Reagan term. We think McCain utlimately lost for reasons other than Palin, although there was considerable second-guessing later among the broader McCain world of advisers about her selection.


Washington, D.C.: You covered the selection process of Sarah Palin pretty closely, but what was the decision making behind picking Joe Biden for the Democratic VP nominee like? Was the Obama team simply so confident that they were ahead that they wanted a pick that would not change the dynamics of the race at all? Were they concerned that picking a long-time Senate veteran would undercut Obama's "change" message at all?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: They believed they were ahead and therefore were drawn to a classic safe choice as vice president. Biden gave the ticket experience, both in the Senate and in foreign affairs, and had the added advantage of having appeal to white, working class voters. All were valuable to Obama.

The Obama team wasn't worried that Biden would undercut the change message. They believed that Obama's persona, image, style, etc., all carried the change message and would do that throughout the fall, regardless of the VP choice.

One risk with Biden obviously was that he goes off script and can say embarrassing things. Obama and his advisers felt that was a relatively small risk.

Biden was a strong favorite throughout the process and though Obama looked seriously at others, Biden had more going for him from the start.


Winnipeg, Canada: My perspective from the Great White North was that if Obama had been a Caucasian with the same career path and credentials, he would have won the election by an even larger margin, perhaps taking every state. What's your opinion?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: The real question is whether Obama could have won the Democratic nomination, had he been a white candidate with the exact same resume and experience.


Silver Spring: As one of the last Republicans standing, I regret seeing abortion and other social issues being any sort of defining issue for the Republican Party. However, I take exception at unchallenged comments in these chats such as "hard-right fanatic." This would imply not only that the reader is uninformed and lazy in his choice of words but his term hard-right fanatic defines something bordering on a Nazi and not someone who merely stands up and votes for what they believe in - which Sara Palin represented for many people.

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: That's a fair point and one worth remembering. People use words too loosely at times and it's good to avoid that. Thanks for your thoughts.


New York, N.Y.: Do you have a book signing scheduled for New York City? And, no, this is not a set up, I'm not your agent. But, yes, I will be there and I will buy a copy, maybe even a second for a friend.

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: How nice of you! We do have a booksigning tonight at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side (82nd and Broadway). We start at 7 with a few remarks and some Q&A. We would be happy to sign as many books as you want to buy. Thanks.


Richmond, VA: David Brooks has suggested that there may be an overabundance of brilliance and ego in the Obama administration. What do you think?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: Maybe he's right. They are a well-educated group, but that's often the case with White House teams.


Glover Park, DC: As a former political operative that left 'the business' because I was too disenchanted by the attacks and venom, I wanted to ask you this question: the section featured in the paper today talks a great deal about how inspiring Kennedy found Obama to be. Maybe I am too calloused by my years in politics, but the thing that struck me in reading that is how different campaigns are from governing. I admit to having been inspired by President Clinton but found disappointment in his Presidency. Similarly, I was hugely inspired by Obama, but feel that he has done little to fulfill some of what he talked about to transcend politics as usual, etc.

Is it because the job of being President is so different from running for President, or is there something else going on?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: There is an inevitable clash between campaigning and governing. Mario Cuomo always like to say politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. There is a gritty reality to governing that is different from the process of campaigning, which is so much about inspiring and energizing. So every president faces this.

There's another factor here. Part of Obama's original appeal seemed to be his call for a break from the old, polarizing politics. What we've seen, however, is that the country has repolarized quickly since the election, making it more difficult for the president to fulfill that promise. You can decide for yourselves who's to blame for that, but it has changed the climate for his presidency.

Finally, all candidates promise so much that it is hard to deliver. There is an inevitable letdown, particularly among the most passionate of followers. How President Obama tries to overcome these problems will, no doubt, be the real story of his presidency.


Boston: I enjoyed reading the section of your book published today in the WaPost on Obama's winning over of Ted Kennedy. My own personal opinion is that Bill Clinton did more to harm Hilary's chances at winning the nomination than pretty much anybody else. What are your thoughts?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: Haynes and Dan have a slight disagreement on this. Haynes believes Bill Clinton was a net negative for his wife. Dan thinks that, while Bill Clinton's performance during the South Carolina primary was damaging, that he brought other assets that were invaluable to her.


Wilmington, NC: I wonder if your book explores Jim Clyburn's role in the SC Dem primary in any depth. I considered it a linchpin of the primary campaign. Do you agree?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: We agree Rep. Clyburn's role was extremely important and highlight some of what he said and did. But we focus far more on the main characters, and in this particular case, on Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy.


Rockville: " he tries to do too much too quickly.."

But you got to make hay when the sun is shining. Many Presidents were slow and wish they had tried more when they had a chance. President Carter gave up many programs just by counting votes. President Johnson had a window to do more, but lost it with Vietnam. I should, however, give credit for what he did accomplish.

My advice to President Obama is to go for it. Then hope some of it will be passed. And try again.

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: Thanks. That's a good perspective. Obama certainly had two paths when he took office, focus almost entirely on the economy or go for the big agenda. We think he chose to go big and bold for exactly the reasons you say. History will judge whether that was the correct decision. The end of that story isn't yet written.


Richmond, Va.: Do you plan a followup book on the early days of the Obama administration? Maybe a series?

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson: No plans at this point. We're just happy to be getting this one launched. There are a number of books by other authors in the works about the early days of the Obama administration and we look forward to them at a later point. The paperback of our book will be out next year and we'll have some updating to add from what has happened by then.

We're now out of time. Thanks again for sending in your questions and sharing your thoughts about about this extraordinary campaign.

Have a great week.

Dan Balz/Haynes Johnson


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