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The twists and turns of US politics -

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The twists and turns of US politics

Broadcast: 16/02/2010

Reporter: Leigh Sales

Time Magazine political analyst Mark Halperin joins the studio to discuss the twists and turns of
America's political landscape.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: The US Presidential election campaign of 2008 is one that people will be
talking about for decades to come. A couple of years on, many of the candidates from that race
continue to live their lives under intense scrutiny, and just like the race for the White House,
the twists and turns are still intriguing.

In the past few months, a book charting the 2008 campaign in great detail has been the talk of

It's called 'Game Change in the United States', although it was retitled 'Race of a Lifetime' for
the international market. One of the book's authors, Mark Halperin, is Lateline's guest tonight.
He's a political analyst with Time Magazine and he joined me from New York.

Mark Halperin, thanks for joining us.


LEIGH SALES: Of the various candidates in the 2008 election, let's start with Barack Obama since he
became President. Barack Obama has a very calm, confident, reasonable public manner. What's he like
in private?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, of all the characters in our book probably the one who has the smallest gap
between what he was like in public and what he was like in private is Barack Obama.

He did have a more negative side that he displayed at times as a candidate in private, a little bit
more sure of himself, a little bit more demanding than he usually let on in public.

But, again, that cool never-too-high, never-too-low character that so benefited him as a candidate
up against Hillary Clinton and the John McCain was pretty much the way he was in private as well.

LEIGH SALES: Does he have any sort of tendency towards cockiness?

MARK HALPERIN: Well he certainly did. You know, around his political action committee, his
fundraising apparatus before he become a Presidential candidate, they called him Black Jesus, in
part because he was in so demand by other Democratic candidates to help them raise money, but also
because he did have a certain cockiness, a confidence.

You know, he always, as we write in the book, if he had a good idea, for instance, and that idea
eventually worked out, he would always be quick to remind people, well, whose idea was that?

So, he's not unusual for a politician to have a certain confidence that could develop into
cockiness at times, but it's certainly one of his more pronounced features that again we show in
the book, but he largely hid from the public.

LEIGH SALES: Given what we know about Obama's character and also the way the campaign unfolded and
the reception he received, how do you imagine he's privately coping with his troubles in the polls
and with his health reform bill now that he's President?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, one of the things that occurred in the campaign, as people know, is he got
very favourable press coverage, and one of the things his aides were always worried about in the
campaign was that he would get tough coverage for the first time in his career and that wouldn't
react well to it.

And he was able to make it through the campaign without getting very tough coverage, with a few
exceptions that he handled pretty well.

Now we know from talking to people in the White House that he is reacting typical for a US
President, or any politician who gets tough coverage as he is now getting: blaming the press,
blaming his political opponents, saying he's not getting enough credit for the things he's

So I think one of the lessons from Race of a Lifetime that people can see projecting forward now
into the White House is that Obama was able to win very skilfully by saying, in effect, "I'm not
Bill Clinton. I'm gonna be change. I'm not George Bush. I'm gonna be change."

Without being very specific, without getting a lot of scrutiny, now he's being forced to be
specific in the White House, I think he is going through a rougher time and not handling it as well
as he did as a candidate.

LEIGH SALES: He did campaign heavily, as you point out, on wanting to change the way that
Washington works. It doesn't look so far like he's been able to do that. Is that still an
achievable goal?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, it's a very tough goal and I think he's squandered some opportunities early in
his presidency to change the tone in Washington, something he made central to what he ran on.

The Republican Party was so weak after the last US election that Obama and advisors could have
reached out to Republicans, ignored in effect their large Democratic majorities in the Congress and
said, "You know what, we're gonna take advantage, reach out our hand to Republicans, make them part
of almost a coalition government." Obama chose not to do that.

He and his advisors decided to take the weakness of the Republican Party and try to make them even
weaker. Now that they are resurgent a bit, by standing up to Obama, it's going to be very difficult
to change things, to work in a more co-operative way than either Bill Clinton or George Bush were
able to do.

But I don't think he has any choice; I think he needs to take extraordinary measures now to try to
turn things around or his presidency will be stuck where it's been for several weeks now, several
months, which is not being able to get anything done with Democratic votes, but not having
Republicans to work with.

LEIGH SALES: On page 72 of your book there's a record of a conversation in which Michelle Obama
asked Barack Obama what he thought he could accomplish by becoming President, and he replied that
there were two things that he was certain he could accomplish.

One is that he would inspire children around the United States who might have previously thought
they could never be President, and the other was that he thought that the world would look at the
US differently and that he could help restore America's reputation.

Now, both those things were achieved largely on the day of his win. Is it possible that that may
have been the pinnacle of the Obama presidency?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, he got that Nobel Peace Prize too, hard-earned. I think that in a lot of areas
Barack Obama has shown promise in terms of international relations, but he's not gotten - he's not
shown the ability to close the deal, either directly or through people like Secretary of State
Clinton or the Defence Secretary. But presidencies are four years long and his term has only been
one quarter past.

So, I think he's got a chance to build on what he's done, but up until now, you'd see on both
international affairs and a lot of domestic matters, you'd have to say a lot of incomplete grades
rather than any successes.

LEIGH SALES: As we all know, Obama and Hillary Clinton almost fought to the death over the
Democrats nomination. Given the acrimony of the race, how is it that President Obama then asked Mrs
Clinton to be the Secretary of State, and furthermore that she said yes?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, one things that John Harman and I found when we were reporting Race of a
Lifetime was that although the world focused on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as combatants, as
you said, in a very fierce nomination fight to be the Democratic nominee for President, the early
history of their relationship, which we write about, was much different.

Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were big supporters of Barack Obama when he first ran for the
United States Senate. They were very impressed by him. Hillary Clinton told her aides that Obama
was a superstar.

And so, there was a foundation of their closeness, both when Obama ran, then when they were both
serving briefly together in the Senate. That middle period when they were fierce combatants did
certainly change Hillary Clinton's view, at least in the short term, of Barack Obama, but at the
end of the book, in the of the story, when Obama makes her that offer, she does turn it down
initially, but in the very last scene of our book she accepts the job, in part because she's a
patriot and she feels from her - particularly from her husband's time in the White House that you
can't say no to the President.

The President of the United States asks you to do something, you're obligated to do it. But also,
as again people can see at the end of Race of a Lifetime, they showed some vulnerability to each
other. Hillary Clinton turns it down and explains why, showing some vulnerability that she rarely
shows to anybody; and Obama did the same thing, saying he needed her in his government.

She was the only one he thought who could do the job of Secretary of State. So, it's in some ways a
surprise ending, but in others, again, if you've read about their earlier relationship, not so much
of a surprise.

LEIGH SALES: Do you believe that Hillary has given up her aspiration to occupy the Oval Office?

MARK HALPERIN: Not for a minute. You know, the political consultant James Carver who worked for
both Clintons is famous for saying - and it's a little bit off colour, but since I'm attributing it
to James, I'm happy to say it: "Running for President's like having sex: after you've done it once
you don't say, 'Oh, that's good. I'm down with that. I won't do it anymore.'"

I suspect that there's a number of scenarios where she may run again, maybe as soon as 2012 if
Obama decides not to seek re-election; maybe as Obama's running mate in 2012, or perhaps, although
she'd be quite old by the standards of most American candidates for president, maybe in 2016.

LEIGH SALES: We spoke about how Barack Obama's public and private selves match up. What about Mrs

MARK HALPERIN: Well one of the things that we were able to uncover for the book is a lot of the
background of Hillary Clinton - what she's like in private.

That is unusual to be able to unearth for someone who's so well-known, one of the most famous
people in the world, certainly one of the most famous women in the world. And what you find about
Hillary Clinton is that there's a more attractive and vulnerable side, a more loving side, and
extraordinarily protective mother.

But at the same time, a lot of people who over the years have been I'd say suspicious about her in
terms of how tough she was, how profane, how aggressive against her opponents.

I think people will see there through dialogue in some pretty rich scenes a Hillary Clinton perhaps
that they suspected existed but have never read about in such close flesh-and-blood detail.

LEIGH SALES: Based on what you learnt about Sarah Palin in researching this book, what sort of
President would she make?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, I think it's clear based on the experience that she had and that her
colleagues had in 2008 during those six - or two months, rather, when she was on the national
ticket, she would have a real struggle in the office, not only in terms of her ability to manage
her time and also master the knowledge required to be the President of the United States, but also,
again, if the past is prologue, her ability to deal with some of the real fundamental aspects of
being President.

There were times in the book we write about on the eve of her Vice-Presidential debate where she
was having difficulty, it seemed, handling the pressure, where she went into almost a catatonic
state, unable to answer, unwilling to answer questions asked directly to her, having real trouble
eating and sleeping and drinking enough to keep up her energy.

And in addition, everyone around her, including those who are supportive of her to this day said
she had trouble telling the full truth; not necessarily lying in every instance, but having trouble
giving the complete facts, often shading the truth or shaping the truth in the way that she thought
was most favourable to her, but which if you're in a very visible public office you just can't get
away with for long.

So, I think she'd bring a lot of strengths to the office, but there'd be a lot of questions I
think, probably more questions than strengths about whether she could do the job.

LEIGH SALES: Reading your book, as I went along I was feeling like, "Ooh, when am I gonna get to
the Sarah Palin bit," and I'm wondering if that says something about her in that she is an
intriguing character regardless of what one might think of her suitability for office.

MARK HALPERIN: Well she's extraordinarily watchable and compelling, and in the United States of
course, people on the right who like her find her to be a heroine, particularly because she's stood
up to the American media, which her supporters believed were biased against her.

And even people on the left who don't like her find that she's compelling. Certainly for the news
media, she's a great story. John and I decided to write Race of a Lifetime before John McCain had
picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, and we thought we had pretty darn good characters with the
Clintons, Barack Obama, John McCain, some of the others, and then, all of a sudden, as the story
seemed to slow down a bit - the general election might have been anti-climatic - John McCain did us
a favour and added another character, and yes, another female character, to a pretty good cast that
had already existed.

LEIGH SALES: Do you think the Republican Party would seriously consider her as its nominee in 2012?

MARK HALPERIN: It think it's going to be very difficult for her to get the nomination. Today I
believe she's the most powerful figure in the Republican Party, but getting to be President,
particularly in the Republican Party, requires getting over some hurdles that I think she will find
very high indeed, raising money from wealthy people and people who know how to raise money, getting
through the gauntlet of some of the early states that vote and expect to be able to question
candidates directly.

And then the news media which she's largely avoided, both as a Vice-Presidential candidate and
since leaving the Alaska governship. I think she'd have to answer a lot more question.

I think they'd be difficult questions. Up until now, other Republicans have been reluctant to take
her on. No-one really has. You don't get to be President without being challenged. I think she'd
have a difficult time withstanding those challenges.

LEIGH SALES: How has John McCain fared post 2008? Because he was quite a beloved figure and a very
influential senator before the race. Has he returned to that?

MARK HALPERIN: You know, he's really taken a surprising direction. A lot of people, including
people close to President Obama - President-elect Obama - thought that John McCain would continue
the posutre that he'd had as United States Senator, which was to try to work to build bi-partisan
coalitions between Republicans and Democrats.

Instead, in part some believe because he's facing a re-election challenge this year from another
Republican, McCain has been extroardinarily uncooperative with Barack Obama, even reversing some of
his previous positions where he would have common ground with the Democrats and with the White
House, and being one of the strongest figures in opposition on a range of issues international and

So he has not been the figure that others thought he would be, including the President.

LEIGH SALES: There's probably nobody who comes out of your book worse than John Edwards and we now
know that he was living a secret life during the campaign that was massively at odds with his
public image. I surely can't be the first person to ask you: what was he thinking?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, look there's a lot of craziness in presidential politics and a lot of
craziness in Race of a Lifetime; nothing's crazier, nothing's more inexplicable than John Edwards'

A politician who is selling himself and his wife as these good, ordinary people whose public lives
match their private lives when in fact nothing could be further from the truth, really living a
dangerous game, pursuing aggressively the Democratic nomination for President against Obama and
Clinton at a time when he knew that he had a pregnant girlfriend.

And then, even after the child is born, trying to talk his way onto the ticket as the running mate
or perhaps to be Attorney-General, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, really
an amazing story.

All politicians have a certain amount of hubris, have a certain amount of delusion - you need that
to run for President in particular.

But John Edwards carried these things to an extraordinary degree. And although he's not the biggest
character in our book, certainly the story we tell about John and Elizabeth Edwards, his wife, who
was such a beloved figure as his spouse, that gets as much attention as anything else I think in
part because it is such a jaw-dropping narrative.

LEIGH SALES: On that point about personality and delusion in the case of John Edwards, there's a
fantastic book about the 1988 presidential election called 'What it Takes' by Richard Ben Cramer,
and it basically looks at the sort of personality types that have what it takes to run, and I think
that the gist of it is basically to run for President you have to be the sort of person who thinks,
"Sure, I could be President. I could be leader of the free world."

Is that what you found, that there's a sort of ego or confidence or perhaps delusion that's central
to everybody who makes a run for President?

MARK HALPERIN: Well, I think you do need to have a measure of that. It is such a gruelling
experience and a humbling experience.

One of the things we try to show in the book written from the point of view of the candidates and
their spouses rather than the strategists or the tacticians is that it is an extraordinarily
humbling experience. Even if you're someone like Barack Obama, a world-famous best-selling author,
or John McCain, a war hero, or Hillary Clinton, a former First Lady of the United States - you
still have to humble yourself, particularly in these early states like Iowa and New Hampshire who
vote at the front of the contest and who's voters expect to be up close and personal.

It is an extraordinarily humbling process and one that does require you to say, "I'm gonna do
whatever it takes" - to borrow the phrase of Richard Ben Cramer's classic book - "I'm gonna do
whatever it takes in order to get elected," and it does requires you, I think, to be a bit deluded
and to imagine yourself in that office.

LEIGH SALES: Mark Halperin, it was a pleasure to talk to you. Thankyou very much.

MARK HALPERIN: Thank you. Appreciate it.