Transcription – Ken Mehlman Interview

Q: Democratic Convention. Did you think they made the most of that opportunity? [34:00]

MEHLMAN: I thought it was a good convention. I thought that it was, as I recall… And again, this is (laughs) ten years. So… But I thought generally they had a pretty good convention. It was a little bit past… Look. I mean, I thought the, “Reporting for duty,” was very dramatic but it was a little bit looking backward, which I think’s always a risk. That’s a balance you have to have. But on balance, I thought they had a very — had a very effective convention.

Q: Was that sort of drawing attention to Senator Kerry and national security? Was that a strategic mistake? I mean, if this election was going to be about national security, wasn’t that playing into President Bush’s hands?

MEHLMAN: Look, I think that the election was going to fundamentally be about leadership and national security. And, you know, the country had been only three years since the 9/11 attack. So I’m not sure… When you say… I would have — looking back on it… At the time, you ca It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. Let’s stipulate that. Looking back on it, would a — would a little more on the economy have potentially helped them? Maybe. But at the end of the day, I think it comes down to attributes. And leadership was going to be the key attribute in this [35:00] election.

Q: The Republican Convention, which was about a month later, and in New York… First of all, how did that decision come about, to hold it in New York City?

MEHLMAN: We thought a lot about it. And look, our two conventions that we chose were both in very blue places, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York, New York. So one reason it was here was because we wanted to be clear we’re appealing to every single voter. You don’t win an election — you do not win an election if you write off part of the country. And we didn’t want to write off any voter in any group anywhere. And New York, I think, had that obvious, important message. Second of all, New York — it’s a business decision (laughs) too, right? — New York put together an incredible plan, between the efforts of Mayor Bloomberg, of former mayor Rudi Giuliani, of Governor Pataki. They pulled out all the stops to get the convention. They put together a very smart and serious proposal. So those were the reasons I thought… And there’s an awesome city. I mean, this is a city that the whole country can identify with. [36:00] And so we thought that was why it was a good choice.

Q: So there was no, sort of, 9/11 association involved in…?

MEHLMAN: Obviously, there was an association. But look, 9/11 was something that was most urgent and acute in New York but the attacks affected all Americans. And the way this city came together and the strength that the people here showed, I thought, was a good tableau for the American people and how Americans respond to challenge. And so the extent to which we would celebrate that response, for people of all political parties, that struck me as a good thing to do.

Q: You know, you said that the campaign didn’t write off any voter anywhere. But… And if tha if this were sort of direct election of the president by national popular vote, that would be one thing. But you’ve got to deal with an Electoral College map.


Q: And so how do you sort of balance not leaving anybody out with going to the states where you really think you have a tight fight but you need to win?

MEHLMAN: Well, first of all, you do it by having a broad and hopeful national platform. [37:00] You run on something that’s going to be relevant and helpful to the whole country. I think education reform is such an example. I think tax reform is such an example. I think enhancing retirement security is such an example. I think protecting our country and keeping us safe in the face of very serious adversaries is such an example. That’s one area that you do. And second of all, when you’re traveling to different states, you don’t just talk to voters who agree with you. So I was very proud… And one of the reasons I went to work for Governor Bush was, when we started of, in 1999 and again in 2003 and 4, he wouldn’t just talk to education reform in the suburbs, where, quite frankly, it’s less necessary. He’d visit poor rural communities or more blighted urban communities, where really improving schools is a fundamental question of whether people will have the kind of mobility and opportunity that all Americans should have. And I think that’s one way that you accomplish that goal.

Q: Let’s move on to the [38:00] — to the debates. How did you all approach those debates? With…? What did you hope to accomplish in those debates? And how did you deal with maybe what now is a more obvious pattern of incumbent presidents —

MEHLMAN: (laughs)

Q: — having a hard time getting their game together for that first debate?

MEHLMAN: Well, the first debate was not a good debate.

Q: (laughs)

MEHLMAN: It was — it was — that Miami debate, I remember, it was — it was quite unpleasant. I remember watching the Ker the Obama first debate, thinking, “I know how they feel.” (laughter) Look, at the end of the day, you want the debates to reinforce the same themes that overall campaign’s about. They’re not about something different. It’s a — it’s a campaign. It’s a broad effort. And you need to make sure that, in the — the comments you make on the stage — the candidates make — and they’re prepped for it — and the comments afterwards, you’re trying to reinforce those same themes. And that’s what we try to do.