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 sh**! And we need to completely rethink the Democratic Party."
As it turns out, that's exactly what should be done. Instead, Carville and his fellow architects of defeat have spent the last two weeks defending their campaign strategy, culminating with a recent 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.
In conversations with Kerry insiders over the past nine months, I've heard a recurring theme: that it was Shrum and the Clintonistas 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 health care, 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."
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.
"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."
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.
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).
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 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.
Publication date: 11/18/04