Monday, November 15, 2004

From DAN GILMARTIN:This is pretty good.


The Architects of Defeat
By Arianna Huffington, AlterNet. Posted November
12, 2004.

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
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
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
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
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
A version of this story was published this week
in the Los Angeles Times.
Find more Arianna at


Thanks Dan. Good read.