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How Sen. John McCain And Sarah Palin Changed The Republican Party


John McCain's desk in the Senate chamber is now draped in black fabric with a vase of white roses on top marking the senator's death this past weekend.

We've been exploring McCain's long political legacy, and now we're going to look at one of the most controversial parts of it - a choice he made in August of 2008. McCain was behind in the presidential race against Barack Obama and looking to shake things up when he chose the little-known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.


SARAH PALIN: I never really set out to be involved in public affairs, much less to run for this office. My mom and dad both worked at the local elementary school. And my husband and I - we both grew up working with our hands. I was just your average hockey mom in Alaska.

SHAPIRO: That hockey mom from Alaska would go on to help lead a revolution inside the Republican Party that eventually carved a path for Donald Trump. NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro's here to talk more about this. Hi, Domenico.


SHAPIRO: Were there already signs in 2008 of where the Republican party was heading?

MONTANARO: Oh, you bet. I mean, when you covered John McCain and Sarah Palin, and you went out on the campaign trail, it was obvious. Palin routinely drew crowds that were larger than McCain himself. You knew something, at that point, was going on.

A lot of it was indicative or symbolized in how differently Palin talked and presented herself and how the crowds reacted to her. You think about that one big moment where John McCain stood up to the woman who said that Barack Obama couldn't be trusted and that he was an Arab. And McCain won all this praise for saying, you know, look.

SHAPIRO: He's a good man. Yeah.

MONTANARO: He's a good man and a family man. Palin was out on the campaign trail saying Barack Obama pals around with terrorists. So there was a very different way that they talked about politics, and that's where the party was headed.

SHAPIRO: And what happened after the 2008 campaign was over with the rise of the Tea Party?

MONTANARO: Well, of course, McCain and Palin lost in that election. But it was really just the beginning. I covered the Tea Party a lot in 2010. I remember, you know, 10,000 people showing up to the Boston Common to see Sarah Palin talk. There were people with signs that said, I can see the midterms from my house, you know? And there was so much energy and enthusiasm for her.

And when the health care bill passed the way it did, that was really a unifying moment for a lot of these folks who felt like the - President Obama's government was going too far. And Palin was a symbol for them to be able to hold up to say they disagreed with these policies.

SHAPIRO: And, as we've said, there was a lot of bad blood between Trump and McCain, and Palin kind of paved the way for Trump. Early in the 2016 campaign, Trump said McCain was not a war hero, and Palin endorsed Trump despite that. So how did John McCain look back on the Palin choice towards the end of his life?

MONTANARO: Well, yeah. There's that. But, you know, Palin, of course, was somebody who, you know, McCain tried to sort of be polite about. Like, he didn't try to go and say that, you know, he regretted the pick. He never really wound up saying that.

In his book "The Restless Wave," he talks about how he wished he had picked Joe Lieberman, who was the senator from Connecticut, a former Democrat - an independent/Democrat - because they were friends. They believed in the same kind of big-picture things when it came to America's role in the world. But his advisers told him that it would be too difficult to pick a Democrat to be able to hold the Republican base together, and he went along with Palin. But he said that, my gut told me to ignore my advisers' advice, and I wished I had.

Now of Palin in particular, he said she stumbled in some interviews and had a few misjudgments in the glare of ceaseless - of the ceaseless spotlight and unblinking cameras. Those missteps, too, are on me.

SHAPIRO: So in the final years of his career, as the party became more like Palin and less like McCain, how did McCain adapt?

MONTANARO: Well, there were times when McCain really kind of put his core values to the side. I mean, he had to win re-election in 2010. And people might remember that ad where he's walking along the border with the - of the Arizona fence saying, we're going to build the dang fence. Sure sounds a lot like Donald Trump and how he's going to build the wall.

Now McCain came back around and became the, quote, unquote, "maverick" again. But he is somebody with a very conservative record. I mean, he - there were moments, yes, where he bucked his party, where he has bucked President Trump, where he bucked George W. Bush, frankly, but also somebody who was a conservative at heart.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.