Interviewee: Joe Lockhart
Current: Founder and Managing Director, Glover Park Group
In 2004: Senior Adviser, John Kerry Campaign for President
Interviewer: Dr. Michael Nelson
Fulmer Professor of Political Science, Rhodes College
Fellow, SMU Center for Presidential History
August 12, 2014
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Q: You played a role in the 1980 election, the Carter —
LOCKHART: I did.
Q: — re-elect.
LOCKHART: I did.
Q: Obviously, the 1996 election, the Clinton re-elect. And my question is, did those experience working for presidents seeking reelection, give any insight to you into the advantages, the disadvantages, the challenges facing Bush in ’04, your opponent?
LOCKHART: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve been on both sides, which is I’ve done, I guess, two presidentials challenging an incumbent, and two presidentials — in varying roles, very junior in the Carter campaign — of incumbents. There are vast advantages to being an incumbent. You get to, in some ways, on some days, really control the agenda. You get to do things, and you get to point to very specific things that you can take credit [00:01:00] for. On the other hand, the agenda can take over your campaign, things that happen overseas, or you know, cyclical moves. The economy is weak, and maybe it’s getting stronger, but it’s not going to be strong enough. You know, the most on-point example would be Carter and the hostages. It dominated the campaign.
So there are advantages and disadvantages. I think there’s a reason that incumbents win more often than not, because I think the advantages generally outweigh the disadvantages. I would say from my personal experience, the biggest advantages, it’s why the debates are so important. It’s very hard for the average voter to see a challenger as being president. It’s a little bit like you’re a kid and you’re looking at your parents. You’re not quite sure why they know things they know, but you just figure, [00:02:00] because you’re — they’re your parent, they know something. I think presidents are like that, which is they’ve been in the office, and in times of tumult and change, which is almost all the time, there’s a security in that, and that’s the biggest thing.
Q: I was thinking, there’s often a huge difference between a president who has to fight for renomination, like Carter did, and a president like Clinton in ’96 or Bush in ’04 who doesn’t have to worry about that at all.
LOCKHART: Yeah, I think, to that, I’d argue that the real story there is if a president’s fighting for the nomination, it means he’s in trouble already. So it’s just a reflection; it’s another symptom of the disease, which is a presidency that’s in trouble. You know, I think a nomination fight can energize you. I mean, if you look at Carter, you know, using his words, “the malaise,” the fight against Ted Kennedy energized his presidency. [00:03:00] He just then [didn’t ascend?] and things happened in the world. But I think, to me it’s more about you don’t challenge the president of your own party unless you think that president’s weak, and part of the calculation is, and part of the thing you say to your fellow Democrats and Republicans is, he’s going to lose in the fall. I need to challenge him. So, I think that fits for — particularly for Carter in 1980.
Q: We’ll come back to the ’04 general election debates later, but one thing you hear frequently said is that a president running for reelection almost never gets up to speed for that first debate in the fall.
LOCKHART: It is the most predictable thing in the world, and no one has figured out a way to convince a sitting president that he’s not ready for a debate. [00:04:00] Well, no one. You know, so I think you saw that with George Bush in 2004; you saw that with Barack Obama in 2012. There’s a sense that you’re doing all this stuff every day; you don’t really need to prepare. And the other guy doesn’t know as much as you, and that kind of belies the whole nature of the — how a debate really works, and how it really plays out.
I remember we did — we were preparing President Clinton for the first debate in 1996, and he did better than anyone I’ve seen, you know, since I’ve been watching debates. But he was not doing well in the prep. The prep was not going well. And he was just having trouble focusing and understanding the challenge. I mean, he knew he was better as a debater than Bob Dole. He knew he knew the issues as [00:05:00] well or better. And he had advantages, but he just couldn’t focus, and I remember Paul Begala, who was there as part of the prep, grabbed me and said, “Let’s have some fun, but try to get his attention,” and we sat down and wrote a New York Times story, a fictional New York Times story from the day after the debate with Clinton getting his clock cleaned by Dole, and gave it to him. And, he wasn’t real happy with it, and I’m sure that that isn’t what got him, but I remember thinking, you know, got to find a way to get his attention.
For whatever reason, I would — the last prep was started, like late one afternoon. He’d frankly been terrible for two days. He showed — he went away. He showed up for that last session, and you saw the best of Bill Clinton, and you saw what you saw in the first debate. But most of them, you know, ended up, and you can go back to — you know, you can go back to Reagan. [00:06:00] Go back to George Bush 41, Bush 43, Obama just tanked in the first debate. And it’s predictable.
Q: So in the debate, again I’m getting way ahead of where I want to be, but in the debate prep in ’04, were you able to sort of tell your colleagues in the campaign, “Look, Bush is not going to be ready for this, and therefore it’s an even bigger opportunity”?
LOCKHART: Yeah, I think there was a sense, and I don’t want to take credit for the strategy in saying that I told my colleagues, but I think there was a sense in the room, and you know, Ron Klain and Bob Shrum and some others did a really great job preparing Kerry. You know, I got there kind of in the middle of it, and these guys, they really did a good job. And I’m sure there were more people involved, and I remember Ron and Bob being very involved. But I think there was a sense that Bush would come and would be somewhat passive, and that was an opportunity for Kerry to be aggressive, and sort of drive the debate, and he did it. He completely [00:07:00] delivered on it. And it was the first time I’d been around him in that intense a preparation and then an event, and I worried a little bit. Like, frankly I thought, “Yeah, he’s doing great in here,” and he was. He was doing very well in the prep, but what’s it going to be like when it’s for real? And he did even better.