Transcription – Mark Mellman Interview

Q:                    But it really teed up the theme of the convention.  I mean, I know during the fall campaign, Senator Kerry really tried to say, in effect, whatever you think of President Bush’s performance after 9/11, he’s failed the Commander in Chief test, in Iraq, Osama Bin Laden’s still out there, did voters, when they perceived Bush, distinguish as much as you would have liked between protecting us against terrorists and making an investment in a war that was becoming increasingly frustrating?

MELLMAN:      Well, they did make a distinction, but they thought George Bush would protect them from terrorism.  They were, as I say, turning against the war and his performance in Iraq, but not yet in dramatic fashion.  And so, one was a clear positive, [00:59:00] the other was not yet a clear negative.

Q:                    You know, during the nominating campaign, Senator Kerry, all the Democrats — or most of the Democrats, I guess — decided not to take the federal money and observe the spending limits, right?  Maybe that’s because Dean raised so much money early.  But in the fall campaign, both parties accepted the —

MELLMAN:      Well, also because if I recall correctly, there are limits on what you can spend in each state as well that go in the primary process.  And we couldn’t win Iowa and New Hampshire with the spending limits that existed for Iowa and New Hampshire.

Q:                    Fall campaign, both parties take the $75 million from the federal government.

MELLMAN:      Yes.

Q:                    But because your convention’s been over a month earlier, you’ve got to make that stretch for three months, and the Republicans only have to make it stretch —

MELLMAN:      Another problem with the July date, yeah.

Q:                    So, did you find during the fall campaign that if we only had the money, you know, we could do certain things that you thought would have made the difference in a close election?  [01:00:00]

MELLMAN:      Well —

Q:                    Because you’re in the spending side, but if they say, “We don’t have the money.”

MELLMAN:      Right, exactly.  It certainly limited our ability to do what we wanted to do immediately after the convention and in those weeks.  I don’t want to say because I can’t remember exactly, but we were not — I don’t want to say we were dark because I can’t remember that, but the bottom line is, we did not have the level of spending that we would have wanted to have, you know, from the convention through election day because we had it divided over a much larger period of time.

Q:                    And in between the conventions, you’ve got the swift boat becoming a big, national story, right?  Swift Boat Veterans For Truth attacking Senator Kerry at what had been thought of as, you know, his greatest —

MELLMAN:      Strength, right.

Q:                    — one of his greatest strengths.  Can you talk about when that happened, how you all decided how to react to it, whether you reacted effectively?  Tell the swift boat story from the Kerry [01:01:00] point of view.

MELLMAN:      Well, I can only tell it from my point of view, so…  (laughter)

Q:                    OK, or the campaign.

MELLMAN:      Well, not even, I can’t even tell it from the whole camp.  There were differences of opinion in the campaign, I can tell you that for sure, that led to pretty tough, some tough meetings.  It was fairly evident fairly quickly in the polling that this was having a significant impact.  It was clear that this was having a significant impact pretty quickly.  Clear to me, I should say.  And therefore, it was clear to me we should be doing more about it.  Now, there’s some people who would say, “Well, Kerry didn’t do anything about it.”  That’s not true.  Lots was done about it.  The question was how much to do and in what form, and so on and so forth.  But it was clear to me that more should be done, much more should be done.  There are other people who argued quite vociferously [01:02:00] that A, Kerry had been attacked in all his previous races on something to do with foreign policy and military service, and it always boomeranged, and so it would here, too.  Second, that the story was just not getting that much attention in circulation.  These guys were on cable, you know, etc.  And so, we would only elevate the story and make it bigger if we did something big about it.  And that was the basic — there might have been some other issues — debate in the campaign.  As I say, it is not the case that nothing was done.  A lot was done.  The question was how much more.  I thought there should be much more done because it was evident to me that it was having an impact.  Others disagreed, and they sort of won the day, at least for a while.

Q:                    What would the more have been, if your advice had been taken?

MELLMAN:      Well, again, I [01:03:00] hesitate just out of memory, just in terms of failure of memory, to tell you exactly what the steps were.  But, you know, I thought, you know, we should have been much bigger about it.  Senator Kerry should have taken it on personally, that we should have brought those other resources of his compatriots, his crew, etc., with him to take that on directly and personally at his level.  Perhaps in advertising as well and so on — paid advertising — to be able to amplify that message.

Q:                    Can we turn to the debates?

MELLMAN:      Mm-hmm.

Q:                    And I know there’s always negotiations before the debates, and what is it that you wanted in way of the format, number of debates, when they would be?

MELLMAN:      You know, honestly, I was not involved in the negotiations themselves.  We had discussions about what we wanted, but I honestly don’t remember the specifics.

Q:                    OK.  Well, what did you hope to [01:04:00] accomplish in those debates?

MELLMAN:      To win.  No, (laughter) well, look, I mean, I think we wanted to be able to do two things.  First of all, deliver our message.  Second, and be able to demonstrate to people that Senator Kerry would be a better president than President Bush, that he had the gravitas, had the ability to be president.  And as I say, I think he demonstrated that in grand fashion.  As I think I said before, I don’t think there’s ever been a time when a challenger beat an incumbent president in all three debates as far as the polls are concerned.  The problem is winning a debate’s not the same thing as winning an election, and you can win the debates without winning the election, and that’s what we did.  But, I think the debates were a tremendous success.