Transcription – Ken Mehlman Interview

Q: So politically… Granted you’re not making the policy decisions. But politically, what do you do, once — when you pick up the paper one morning, or whatever the equivalent is today, and see, “Here’s an i here’s an item on the national agenda that could hurt us” —

MEHLMAN: Well, you have to try to —

Q: — “How do we keep it f “?

MEHLMAN: — you try to — you try to explain it in the context of what your overall thesis about the campaign was. And so our thesis about the campaign was that the country wanted a strong leader at a time of war. And at the same time, we thought it was very important… The president — the substance was the president was furious about that and felt terrible about that. A huge part of what we were trying to do in Iraq, and this expanded when we did the surge, was not just to simply remove Saddam Hussein but the thesis was that a democracy, in the heart of the Middle East, would be very important to [21:00] dealing with the underlying poisonous feeling that, to some degree, leads to terrorism. And that was what President Bush believed. He believed that the autocracies that existed in the Middle East breeded terrible resentment, which, and in turn, made terrorism much more likely to be supported. Doesn’t justify it but democracy would be the solution. So when you have a situation where the people that are involved in liberation are also engaging in such deplorable behavior and disrespectful behavior to the population that you’re dealing with, it’s terrible. And President Bush felt that way. He said it. We thought that your job, as the campaign, was not to get in the way of his saying, was to echo his messaging if we were asked about it.

Q: Well, y- back to the attributes theme. What did you think were the attributes that Senator Kerry had as a candidate that were in his favor and that you thought were wea– potentially weaknesses?

MEHLMAN: Look, the fact that he served his country in an honorable way [22:00] was a huge advantage. He was an experienced senator. He was a obviously credible president, from day one. I think, if you looked at his record in the Senate, you looked at his service to our country, he was someone who, from day one, was credible as a potential president. So he overcame that very important threshold, that a lot of candidates, by the way, don’t overcome. I also thought he was somebody that, if you looked at his record in the Senate, was a thoughtful guy and had approached a number of issues in a way that was not always just the conventional way of thinking. So I thought he brought those attributes to the table. I think his challenge was — and it’s a situation that a lot of candidates face — was that in the primary, because the primary voters were very upset about the war in Iraq, that he had voted for, how does his square that vote with those primary voters, how does he navigate that very complex situation. I thought that was a challenge. Secondly, I think senators generally have a… There’s a reason that, in our lifetimes — in my lifetime, one, and that is Barack Obama, [23:00] and other people who may be watching this, two, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, two senators are only elected president. And that is the skills one gets as a senator are not necessarily the skills that leadership — are most amenable to leadership. And that doesn’t mean we don’t have great senators who are leaders but they’re different kinds of leadership skills. One is more negotiation. One is more cajoling. The other is more advocacy and setting a position and persuading others to join that position, one-to-many as opposed to one-to-one. And so I think any senator faces that challenge. And I think Senator Kerry did.

Q: I saw you quoted somewhere as saying, and maybe based on your experience in 2000, that, when a — when a campaign ramps up from a relatively small operation to a large operation, there’s a sorting out period there in which the campaign may not be functioning, in that transition time —

MEHLMAN: Yeah.

Q: — at peak efficiency.

MEHLMAN: Right.

Q: Did you anticipate that would happen with the Kerry campaign, as it ramped up for [24:00] the general?

MEHLMAN: I thought it was possible. Look, at the end of the day… It’s interesting you mentioned this. And I’m glad you brought it up. The two books that I encouraged people that worked on my campaign to read were Moneyball and Good to Great, not political books.

Q: Yeah.

MEHLMAN: And the reason is because, at the end of the day, I viewed my job — I was the CEO of a company. It was a billion-dollar company, it was a company that would be on the news every single day, and it was a startup. And it was a company that, our business happened to be politics. But my job was management. My job was resource allocation. My job were things that the CEO of any company has to address. And too many people in politics view their job as primarily politics and not management. And so any campaign faces that challenge. And I felt that the Kerry campaign, clearly… Mary Beth Cahill, who ran it, I know. I have huge respect for her. I think she’s a smart, very effective manager, as well as a political mind. And that was something that she had to deal with. It was absolutely a challenge. [25:00] All of us… I had to deal with the same challenge.