The Architects of Defeat
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Twelve days before the election, James Carville stood in a Beverly Hills 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 advisor 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 core 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. "News events were driving this," said Shrum. "The economy was not driving the news coverage."
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 re-fighting the 1992 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 last nine months, I've heard a recurring theme: that it was Shrum and the Clintonistas (including Greenberg, Carville and senior advisor Joe Lockhart) who dominated the campaign in the last two months and who were convinced that this election was going to be won on domestic issues, like jobs and healthcare, and not on national security.
As Tom Vallely, the Vietnam War veteran whom Kerry tapped to lead the response to the Swift Boat 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. As for Shrum, he would grab on to anyone's strategy; he had none of his own."
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. So we never defended John's character and focused on his leadership with the same singularity of purpose that the Republicans put on George Bush's leadership. A fallout of this was that the campaign had no memorable ads. In a post-election survey, the only three ads remembered by voters were all Republican ads and that was after we spent over $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. "Yet, at the end of the day, a presidential campaign and this post-9/11 campaign in particular is about these underlying attributes rather than about a laundry list of issues."
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, who was responsible for the campaign's wildly successful online operation, told me. "John broke through and found his voice again. But even after the speech the campaign kept returning to domestic issues, and in the end I was only able to get just over a million dollars for ads making our 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. And therefore as Thorne and Vallely, among others, kept arguing, if the president continued to hold a double-digit advantage on his leadership on the war on terror, he would win. 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 healthcare. But they just didn't want to hear it. Their minds were made up."
Boyce, along with Cam Kerry, were instrumental in bringing to the campaign four of the more outspoken 9/11 widows, including Kristin Breitweiser, who had provided critical leadership in stopping the Bush administration from undermining the 9/11 Commission. "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. 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 advisor 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, 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 Mary Beth 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 for two weeks before Rubin told Ron Brownstein of The Los Angeles Times that he was not speaking for the candidate.
Just how misguided the campaign's leadership was can be seen in the battle that took place between Vernon Jordan, the campaign's debate negotiator, and Cahill and Shrum. "They were so opposed," someone close to the negotiations told me, "to Jordan's accepting the first debate being all about foreign policy, in exchange for a third debate, that Jordan and Cahill had a knock down, drag out argument. It was so bad that Jordan had to send her flowers before they could make up." It was a familiar strategic battle with Jordan siding with those who believed that unless Kerry could win on national security, he would not win period.
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, and that he should come out in favor of all 11 state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage a move that would have been a political disaster for a candidate who had already been painted as an unprincipled flip-flopper. 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 was 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 healthcare issue with the Bush campaign turning it into an attack on trial lawyers.
"This election was about security," Gary 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 group 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. He insisted that because his polling showed Kerry had already won the election, he should not do anything that would endanger his position. We argued that since Osama dominated the news, it would be hard for us to get any other message through. So a compromise was reached, according to which Kerry issued a bland statesman-like statement about Osama (followed by stumping on the economy), and we dispatched Holbrooke to argue on TV that the reappearance of bin Laden proved that the president had not made us safer."
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 couldn't teach these old Beltway dogs new tricks. It's time for some fresh political puppies.
A version of this story was published this week in the Los Angeles Times.