Twelve days before the election, James Carville stood in a Beverly Hills, Calif., living room surrounded by two generations of Hollywood stars. After being introduced by Sen. John Kerry’s daughter Alexandra, he told the room —confidently, almost cockily —that the election was in the bag.
“If we can’t win this damn election,” the adviser to the Kerry campaign said, “with a Democratic Party more unified than ever before, with us having raised as much money as the Republicans, with 55 percent of the country believing we’re heading in the wrong direction, with our candidate having won all three debates, and with our side being more passionate about the outcome than theirs — if we can’t win this one, then we can’t win shit! And we need to completely rethink the Democratic Party.”
Well, as it turns out, that’s exactly what should be done. But instead, Carville and his fellow architects of the Democratic defeat have spent the last week defending their campaign strategy, culminating on Monday morning with a breakfast for an elite corps of Washington reporters. At the breakfast, Carville, together with chief campaign strategist Bob Shrum and pollster Stan Greenberg, seemed intent on one thing — salvaging their reputations.
They blamed the public for not responding to John Kerry’s message on the economy, and they blamed the news media for distracting voters from this critical message with headlines from that pesky war in Iraq.
But shouldn’t it have been obvious that Iraq and the war on terror were the real story of this campaign? Only these Washington insiders, stuck in an anachronistic 1990s mind-set and refighting the ’92 election, could think that the economy would be the driving factor in a post-9/11 world with Iraq in flames. That the campaign’s leadership failed to recognize that it was no longer “the economy, stupid” was the tragic flaw of the race.
In conversations with Kerry insiders over the past nine months, I’ve heard a recurring theme: that Shrum and the Clintonistas (including Greenberg, Carville and senior adviser Joe Lockhart) dominated the campaign in the last two months and were convinced that this election was going to be won on domestic issues like jobs and health care, and not on national security.
As Tom Vallely, the Vietnam War veteran whom Kerry tapped to lead the response to the Swiftboat attacks, told me: “I kept telling Shrum that before you walk through the economy door, you’re going to have to walk through the terrorism/Iraq door. But, unfortunately, the Clinton team, though technically skillful, could not see reality — they could only see their version of reality. And that was always about pivoting to domestic issues.”
Vallely, together with Kerry’s brother, Cam, and David Thorne, the senator’s closest friend and former brother-in-law, created the “Truth and Trust Team.” This informal group within the campaign pushed at every turn to aggressively take on President Bush’s greatest claim: his leadership on the war on terror.
“When Carville and Greenberg tell reporters that the campaign was missing a defining narrative,” Thorne told me this week, “they forget that they were the ones insisting we had to keep beating the domestic-issues drum.” The result, he said, was that the campaign had no memorable ads, despite spending more than $100 million on advertising. Cam Kerry agrees. “There is a very strong John Kerry narrative that is about leadership, character and trust. But it was never made central to the campaign,” he said.
It was the Truth and Trust Team that fought to have Kerry give a major speech clarifying his position on Iraq, which he finally did, to great effect, at New York University on Sept. 20. “That was the turning point,” Thorne told me. “John broke through and found his voice again.” But even after the speech, said Thorne, who was responsible for the campaign’s wildly successful online operation, the campaign kept returning to domestic issues, and in the end he received only a paltry $1 million to run ads making the case.
Despite a lot of talk about “moral values,” exit polls proved that Iraq and the war on terror together were the issues uppermost in people’s minds. But those in charge of the Kerry campaign ignored this giant, blood-red elephant standing in the middle of the room and allowed themselves to be mesmerized by polling and focus group data that convinced them the economy was the way to go.
“We kept coming back from the road,” said James Boyce, a Kerry family friend who traveled across the country with Cam Kerry, “and telling the Washington team that the questions we kept getting were more about safety and Iraq than health care. But they just didn’t want to hear it. Their minds were made up.” Boyce was instrumental in bringing to the campaign four of the more outspoken 9/11 widows, including Kristin Breitweiser. “We told the campaign,” Breitweiser told me, “that we would not come out and endorse Kerry unless he spoke out against the war in Iraq. It was quite a battle. In fact, I got into a fight with Mary Beth Cahill on the phone for not getting it. I actually said to her: ‘You’re not getting it. This election is about national security.’ I told her this in August. She didn’t want to hear it.”
The campaign’s regular foreign policy conference calls were another arena where this battle was fought, with Kerry foreign policy adviser Richard Holbrooke taking the lead against the candidate coming out with a decisive position on Iraq that diverged too far from the president’s. Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart consistently argued against Holbrooke’s view, and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden expressed his disagreement with this ruffle-no-feathers approach directly to Kerry. But until the Sept. 20 speech in New York, it was Holbrooke who prevailed — in no small part because his position dovetailed with the strategic direction embraced by Shrum and campaign manager Cahill.
Jamie Rubin, the Clinton State Department spokesman, had also argued that Kerry should stick close to the Bush position, and even told The Washington Post that Kerry, too, would probably have invaded Iraq. Kerry was reportedly apoplectic but did not ask for Rubin’s resignation, thereby letting the damage linger.
Behind the scenes, former President Clinton also kept up the drumbeat, telling Kerry in private conversations right to the end that he should focus on the economy rather than Iraq or the war on terror. Sure, Kerry spoke about Iraq here and there until the end of the race (how could he not?), but the vast majority of what came out of the campaign, including Kerry’s radio address 10 days before the election, was on domestic issues.
Another good illustration of how the clash played out came over the flu vaccine shortage, which ended up being framed not as a national security issue (how can you trust this man to keep you safe against biological warfare when he can’t even handle getting you the flu vaccine?) but as a health care issue.
“This election was about security,” Hart told me. But when he suggested that Kerry should talk about jobs and energy and other issues in the context of security, Hart said, he was “constantly confronted with focus groups data, according to which the people wanted to hear a different message focused on the economy.”
The last few days of the campaign, in which national security dominated the headlines — with the 380 tons of missing explosives in Iraq, multiple deaths of U.S. soldiers, insurgents gaining ground and the reappearance of Osama bin Laden — show how Kerry could have pulled away from Bush if, early on, his campaign had built the frame into which all these events would have fit.
How the campaign handled the reappearance of bin Laden the Friday before the election says it all. “Stan Greenberg was adamant,” a senior campaign strategist told me, “that Kerry should not even mention Osama.” Greenberg insisted that because his polling showed Kerry had already won the election, he should not do anything to endanger his position. But because bin Laden was dominating the news, a compromise was reached, under which Kerry issued a bland, statesman-like statement (followed by stumping on the economy) and Holbrooke was dispatched to argue on television that the reappearance of bin Laden proved that the world was no safer than it had been.
As at almost every other turn, the campaign had chosen caution over boldness. Why did these highly paid professionals make such amateurish mistakes? In the end, it was the old obsession with pleasing undecided voters (who, Greenberg argued right up until the election, would break for the challenger) and an addiction to polls and focus groups, which they invariably interpreted through their Clinton-era filters.
It appears that you can’t teach these old Beltway dogs new tricks. It’s time for some fresh political puppies.
Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, author of 10 books and co-host of Left, Right & Center, a weekly public affairs program heard on a number of radio stations around the country. Send comments to [email protected]