Transcription – Mark Mellman Interview

Q:                    And you also had [00:27:00] swift boat veteran crew showing up, right?

MELLMAN:      Yes.

Q:                    And so, on (inaudible) TV, what people were seeing on the news is reinforcing that.

MELLMAN:      Exactly.  Well, we had the ad, right, and to amplify the ad, we had the people, exactly.  Who were really, you know, wonderful people who were totally dedicated to John Kerry and, you know, were giving up — literally giving up their jobs to come and campaign for John Kerry because they believed in him so much.

Q:                    And then, when you won Iowa, did you think, “Uh-oh, John Edwards is turning out to be more formidable than we’d expected,” and you know, past New Hampshire now, there’s the Southern primaries?  And did you have to recalculate your strategy because Edwards finished such a strong second and Dean really, even before the scream, you know, he was on a downward trajectory?

MELLMAN:      Yeah, he was, and as I say, [00:28:00] it was clear to me, the moment we won Iowa, that John Kerry was going to win the nomination.  As I said, were there going to be some bumps in the road?  Yes, there always are, but we were going to win the nomination.  Certainly the first piece was dispatching Dean in New Hampshire, which Kerry did very effectively and won New Hampshire, but as I said, that was sort of an inevitability.  You know, then you went to the South, and there clearly were places — you know, South Carolina — where somebody like Edwards had an advantage.  And that’s just a fact of life.  To me, it was not going to be dispositive, but it caused a lot of worry in the campaign at first, that we could lose a primary like that, and that the general election planning was called off so that we could be totally dedicated [00:29:00] to winning the nomination.  And, you know, went on much further.  But of course, you know, really swept most of the other contests.

Q:                    What was your — What did you see as President Bush’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate?  Because that’s how you were going to be dealing with him if you got the nomination.

MELLMAN:      Well, you know, he had tremendous strengths, and I will say I said to my colleagues and Senator Kerry when I was talking about taking the job, I said, “Look, I believe that George Bush is going to be reelected.  And I’m willing to do everything and everything I can to prevent that and to elect John Kerry, but you should know that you have a pollster who believes that’s the less likely outcome.  And if you can’t abide that, you know, know it and don’t hire me.”  But —

Q:                    What did he say?

MELLMAN:      [00:30:00]  Wanted me on the team, so that was great.  All of which to say, I think Bush had tremendous assets as a candidate.  Honestly, not so much at a personal level, though, let me rephrase that, that’s not quite true.  He had tremendous assets.  First and foremost, he was the incumbent president, and incumbent president going for a second party term.  Right?  Yes.  And only once before in the last century has an incumbent going for a second party term been defeated, and that was Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Very hard to — Very hard feat to accomplish.  So, he had history on his side, and that’s really about incumbency and so on.  Second, he was [00:31:00] the September 11 president.  That is to say, this was the first presidential election post-September 11.  It was an election where terrorism and those issues were very much on the front burner and became even more on the front burner late in the game.  And he, again, you can argue, one can argue about whether he did the right thing or did anything or whatever, but he was certainly seen by the public as strong and able to deal with those — with terrorism.  The truth is, I think anybody who would have been president on September 11 would have responded in a fairly similar way, at least on the things that he got positive credit for, and would have been the same position.  But he was the person who was president then, and he did get the credit.  So, that’s, you know, also a tremendous asset.  Third, you know, while people — you know, elite — sort of make fun of him in some ways, and the public, you know, certainly [00:32:00] saw some of his foibles and so on, he was seen as a regular guy who was in touch with people.  So, he had some tremendous assets.  He also had some liabilities.  The economy wasn’t great — the truth is, it was good enough to get an incumbent reelected, but it wasn’t great in some ways.  Second, the war was becoming unpopular.  It was not that unpopular then, but it was becoming unpopular.  And so, the liabilities were mainly in the future; the assets were the here and now.

Q:                    And with the war in Iraq, I mean, how much did the initial popularity of the war and the initial military success in the war, preceded by, you know, the movement to go to war, how much did that shape the way the Democratic field was sort of dealing with the war in office?  I know, you know, October [00:33:00] 2002, the vote on the authorization to use military force in Iraq, and seemed like all the Democrats who were thinking of running for president who were in Congress, including Kerry, ended up voting for that and had explanations later on.  But basically, they were on — they operated on the assumption that this was the move that needed to be made, or that politically, it was going to be the only defensible road?

MELLMAN:      And, look, there’s a substantive — I don’t think anybody looks at a vote like that primarily in political terms.  People look at it in substantive terms, primarily.  There were certainly very distinguished party leaders who were known for their political savvy, who shall remain nameless but who were saying to everyone that would listen, “No one’s going to be elected president who doesn’t vote yes on the authorization to use force.”

Q:                    Party leaders [00:34:00] in Congress or outside, all over?

MELLMAN:      All over.  So, that was the sort of conventional wisdom at the time the vote was taken.  But again, I don’t think it was mainly a political thing.  I talked to Senator Kerry about it, and look, I mean, I think he said at the time — if you look at his speech on the floor — he had been told that there are weapons of mass destruction.  He believed that if there were weapons of mass destruction, that warranted action in the absence of Saddam Hussein’s failure to get rid of those weapons of mass destruction.  It turns out that in fact, obviously, there weren’t weapons of mass destruction, but Saddam Hussein had wanted everyone to believe there were weapons of mass destruction.  And why he wanted everyone to believe that, even to the point of being invaded, will remain for history to resolve that conundrum.  But in any event, he wanted people to believe he had weapons of mass destruction.  He didn’t, and [00:35:00] we — you know, the United States — got suckered in or sucked in to that, on that basis.  Had it not been for the weapons of mass destruction, I don’t think Senator Kerry would have voted yes, but then it becomes sort of, how do you explain that to people?  Given that they’re not finding weapons of mass destruction, how do you explain that to people?  And particularly how to explain it in the context of a Democratic primary electorate, which is different than the general electorate, in the sense that the Democratic primary electorate is already extraordinarily anti-war by the time you get to the primary, but the overall public is not, and certainly, the swing voters are not overwhelmingly anti-war.  So, it became some difficult shoals, politically, but…  And, you know, had things going on a little while longer, well, did hurt Bush more, and might have had a different outcome had the election been [00:36:00] three months later, six months later, whatever.  But it wasn’t.  It was when it was.