Transcription – Ken Mehlman Interview

Q: So at some point, you left the White House —


Q: — to become campaign manager. When was that?

MEHLMAN: March of 2003. I think it was March — February, March, sometime in that period. Although I knew I was going to do… I mean, the — President Bush had asked me to do this back in 2002.

Q: And going into 2003, were you all making any…? Maybe assumptions is too strong a word. But did you have any thoughts about who your likely opponent was going to be?

MEHLMAN: We didn’t know that. We knew the following. One, it would be a tough campaign. We assumed that from the beginning. The country had been polarized. It was still polarized. The president’s approval was good but not great at all. And we assumed, which turned out to be the case, [11:00] he would win reelection with lower approval than any previous president in modern times — which he did. He was — he had about 51%, 50% approval, upper 40s leading up to the election. And he got 51% of the vote. Usually presidents are either, like President Reagan or President Clinton, over 53, which case they’re clearly going to get reelected, or, like President Carter or the 41st president Bush — their numbers were much lower, in which case it’s a really uphill slog. We were in the middle. By the way, President Obama was in the middle too. So we assumed it would be a very close election. That was the first thing. Second thing is we assumed, and I think this is very important, elections are usually about attributes, not issues. One of the mistakes, in my opinion, that people make who watch politics and who are, therefore subsumed in issues, is to think the average voter is similarly subsumed in voters — issues. The average voter… You know that book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell?

Q: Yes.

MEHLMAN: The average voter makes those kinds of reactions to candidates. And ultimately, it’s a job hire [12:00]. When I hire someone here in my job, at KKR or at one of our — looking to recommend a hire to one of our portfolio companies, I’m looking not just for what substantive experience they have. I’m looking for what kind of person they are. I’m looking for their attributes. And I think, similarly, in a reelection campaign or an election campaign, attributes are critical. So we thought the president’s attribute that would be most important and relevant to voters was the fact that he was a strong leader, particularly a strong leader at a time when the country faced a war and a, really, existential threat. So those, to us, were most important. And we didn’t know who the opponent would be but we thought, “Tough election. Attributes are important.” And we also thought critical to the election would be how we did among Latino voters and how did among suburban women. They were the two most important constituencies that were most volatile.

Q: It’s interesting, because in 2000 Governor Bush’s appeal was strongly on domestic issues. And you [13:00] mentioned the compassionate conservatism.

MEHLMAN: But that was an attribute appeal too. So when he talked about education reform or compassionate conservatism, people didn’t say, “I like this aspect of his education reform plan.” It was an attribute thing. People elected President Bush in 2000, in my opinion, because they thought, first, he was going to bring honor and dignity to the White House, which they liked, and, second, because they said, “The approach he takes to issues is an inclusive approach, it’s a thoughtful approach, it’s an approach that we think can help make our country better because of the kind of leader he is,” rather than the specifics. Issues are lenses through which voters look and make a judgment about an individual candidate.

Q: OK. So from an attribute standpoint, I mean, the big surprise in ’03 was that suddenly Governor Dean was a phenomenon.

MEHLMAN: Right. (laughs)

Q: What did you see in the Dean campaign? Did you think — how did you think it would play out? Did you want to run against Dean? Did you think he would win?

MEHLMAN: Well, we thought Governor Dean appealed to, obviously, a growing restiveness among a big part of the electorate, [14:00] with respect to the Iraq War. And it was a real appeal. And Governor Dean also benefited from strong grassroots. And he built a strong grassroots… At the time, they called it netroots. What’s interesting is… There’s… I cite books a lot. I apologize (laughs) for that. But there’s a really good book called David and Goliath, by also Malcolm Gladwell. And one of the theses of the book is that underdogs have certain advantages, they just don’t know it yet. And one of the advantages an underdog have — has is that many underdogs, because they’re underdogs, have to be more innovative than their more well financed or well positioned incumbent challenger. And Governor Dean didn’t have that much money, when he started, and wasn’t as well known and didn’t have the national network, say, that a Governor K Governor — that a — that a Dick Gephardt had or Joe Lieberman, having run for vice president, had or John Kerry had or other people. And so he had to innovate more. And his netroots they developed, the use of essentially social media, [15:00] meet-ups, to mobilize people was a very smart move. And it was interesting to watch. And certainly, I felt like we learned, watching Governor Dean and watching what Joe Trippi put together — we learned something about, again, the power of neighbor mobilizing and influencing neighbor. And we tried to adopt similar tactics in our effort.

Q: Did you think he would — his candidacy would continue to be as strong, on into ’04, or did you think…?

MEHLMAN: Was — it was unclear. I mean, you know, you can’t ever predict who your opponent is. At the end of the day, the challenge I think he faced was whether his more grassroots effort, more kind of prairie fire could catch and spread, without the resources — you know, kind of the supply chain, supply lines that a more well financed campaign had. And he ultimately didn’t have that.

Q: Seems like there’s a tremendous — looking at President Bush now, is a tremendous advantage for an incumbent president who doesn’t face a primary.

MEHLMAN: Huge advantage. There is, no question. [16:00] And if you stop and you think about it, in recent elections Repub Democrat and Republican presidents who have not faced a primary challenge have almost consistently been reelected. So I can’t think of a situation where they haven’t been reelected. When they face a primary challenge, they’ve almost invariably lost too, 41, President Carter being the two most recent examples —

Q: In fact —

MEHLMAN: — President Ford too.

Q: — other than Clinton, every recent president, st back to Ford, had faced a primary challenge.