Transcription – Robert Shrum Interview

Q:              Well, that was a huge strategic [00:14:00] gamble, right?  Because if —

SHRUM:     There was only one way forward for us.  We had to either win Iowa, or come in a very strong second.  A very strong second to Dean, I think Kerry would have won the nomination, ultimately, because the party would have — a lot of people would have focused on the fact that Dean would have a hard time winning.  That puts it mildly.  I think he would have had an almost impossible time winning.  But it was the only way forward.  Sometimes in politics, the best strategy is necessity — just recognize what you have to do, and go do it.

Q:              So, the thinking was if he writes off Iowa, finishes third, fourth —

SHRUM:     If we had finished third or fourth in Iowa, we…

Q:              Wouldn’t have won New Hampshire.

SHRUM:     Well, no, we would not have won New Hampshire; we would have been out of the race.  There was no thought of writing off Iowa.  The only thought was, we’re just not going to go to New Hampshire for the first part of, [00:15:00] you know, while we’re in Iowa, for the — in January.  And we had been up there a lot, but that the way that — Look, voters in New Hampshire, who had a very favorable opinion of John Kerry, thought he was going to lose, so they were voting for somebody else.  If he won Iowa, then that favorable opinion could become the fuel that would drive the race forward.  By the way, he never attacked Dean, but in a debate, in early January, two things really helped us in Iowa, aside from — three things, actually, aside from that.  The first was the Jefferson/Jackson Day dinner, where we tore up all the signs that people had planned and we had a whole new argument, and just called Kerry the real deal, and all our people were holding up signs, “the real deal.”  And the real deal really meant, he’s the guy who could beat Bush, he’s the guy who could be president, plausibly.  And that was the question that Iowa voters were asking, and [00:16:00] it had to be the question.  If they were asking a different question, you know, like, “Who’s the most radical guy?” then Howard Dean would have won.  But they weren’t asking that question, so that was a critical moment.  Kennedy coming to Iowa in early January was critical to when he came back.  Because he could explicitly make the argument, “This is the guy who has the best chance to beat Bush,” and he could do it with — we got huge crowds when we brought Teddy, but he’d also do it with a little humor, saying, “You know, you supported my brother in ’60, you supported my brother, Bobby, in ’68, you didn’t support me in ’80, you owe me.”  (laughter)  And the third was a debate that — where the candidates got to ask each other a question, and it was on the day where Kerry was going to appear on Meet the Press as well.  And we were supposed to have a briefing, like, at ten o’clock at night.  And of course, he was late, coming from somewhere else in the state, [00:17:00] so came in about midnight or 12:30, and not happy that he didn’t have more briefing time.  And the candidates could all ask each other a question, and they had a minute to ask it.  And Mike Donilon, my partner, and I wanted Kerry to ask a very brief question, which is, “Governor Dean, you recently said that you wouldn’t assume Osama bin Laden was guilty:  what in the world were you thinking?”  And Kerry said, “But I have a whole minute.”  And I said, “But you don’t want to use the minute, you just want to do this.”  And he asked it, adding an extra couple of sentences to it at the front, but it was very short — maybe 20 seconds, 15 seconds.  And of course, there’s no answer to that question.  What that said to Democrats sitting out there is, “He’ll just get hammered in the general election.”  And you know, he could give the answer, “We’re a country of laws and the rule of law and we have to try him in court,” [00:18:00] which is kind of what he did.  But that goes nowhere with voters, at that point.  Even if they kind of half-agree with him, some of the more liberal Democrats, they say, “Oh, my Lord, if he says that, what’s he going to say in a debate with Bush?”

Q:              What do you make of the Dean phenomenon?  Because he came out of seemingly nowhere and was all the rage during the summer of ’03.  The Bush people thought he would be the nominee.  Did you ever think that?

SHRUM:     I didn’t, but I also understood that we had only one road to the nomination.  Dean was originally — originally ran, and I don’t know what Joe [Trippi] told you, but Dean’s original notion was, “I’ve been a governor, I’ve balanced budgets, I can be the fiscally sensible candidate.”  And if Kerry had voted against the war, or if Edwards had voted against the war, I don’t think the Dean [00:19:00] phenomenon ever would have happened, despite the brilliance of what Joe Trippi and his then-partner Steve McMahon, who gets less credit for this than he should, did, both with the internet and with seizing on the war issue.  And the reason I thought Dean would not be the nominee was because I did believe that the question Iowa voters were asking was who could beat Bush, and Dean wasn’t the answer.  Kerry was the answer.  Edwards might have been a far-fetched answer.  And as I say, I just don’t think Gephardt was top of mind for people.  The other thing that happened to Dean in Iowa was — that we had nothing to do with — is Gephardt, the Gephardt campaign did exactly what we resisted doing, which was they attacked Dean in television ads, so Dean attacked back, so suddenly, you have Gephardt and Dean going after each other, and you know, [00:20:00] they end up finishing third and fourth.

Q:              So, the net beneficiary in a multi-candidate race is the one who’s not involved either as the attacker or the attacked?  Is that —

SHRUM:     Yeah, I think especially in a multi-candidate primary.  I mean, there are times in, you know, I mean in Oregon in 2000, in the Gore campaign, it was — we took a poll and it was pretty close, in a state we should win in, it was pretty close because Ralph Nader was getting a lot of votes.  So, we attacked Ralph Nader on the air, and — but the people who were seeing those ads, who were the targets of those ads, they were going to vote for us or they were going to vote for him.  They weren’t going to vote for George Bush.  So — But in most multi-candidate primaries inside the same party, if — you got to be very careful.  If you’re going to try — If you’ve got three candidates and you want to try to take out one or go after one, you better go after the other one, too.

Q:              Well, you joined the campaign, [00:21:00] or your firm joined the campaign, first of all, maybe tell us a little bit about the firm.  “Shrum joins the campaign” is shorthand for what?

SHRUM:     For Shrum, Devine & Donilon.  Tad Devine, who’d been my partner since 1990, had worked in a lot of races.  Worked in the Dukakis presidential campaign, and although, as he always reminds people, he was the campaign manager for the vice president, or vice presidential candidate, Lloyd Bentsen, and that was a rather more successful part of that enterprise.  And we’d done a lot of campaigns, Senate campaigns, gubernatorial campaigns together, and we’d done campaigns overseas together, in places as different as Colombia and Bolivia and Israel and Britain and Ireland.  [00:22:00]  So, that’s Tad.  Mike Donilon was my partner from 1991, for a couple of years.  He was part of the Clinton media team in 1992.  James Carville said to me, “Look, I want to get you down here, but they’re mad at you, so I can’t get you down here.  But I want Mike,” and Mike was there and in the war room, and really was responsible for a lot of the advertising in the Clinton campaign in ’92, and then went off for two years with Carter Eskew, who later became a partner of mine, and Mandy Grunwald, and then in 1994, when — or after 1994, early ’95, I think, when Carter decided he was going to leave political advertising, he came back [00:23:00] for the Gore campaign, but only for the Gore campaign, because Al Gore’s a very good friend of his…  Tad came into my office one day and said, “Mike would like to come be our other partner.  What do you think of that?”  I said, “Let’s go have lunch and do it.”  And you know, since then, he’s very close to Biden, he was Biden’s counselor in the White House, he left the White House for the reelection campaign in 2008, and was responsible — he never talks about himself.  He’s brilliant, and he never talks about himself.  And did a lot of the advertising in the 2008 Obama campaign.

Q:              So, what — what were you hired to do, your firm?  Formally, what was your role?

SHRUM:     Media and strategy.

Q:              OK.  And what kind of shape was the campaign in when you joined it?

SHRUM:     Well, Kerry was leading among Democrats, you know, 17-18%.  [00:24:00]

Q:              This was February 2003.

SHRUM:     Yeah, but that was when the — I mean, I sort of made the decision a little before that, but — we made the decision a little before that, but we had to go through the process, to be fair.  And you know, the war vote was beginning to hurt, even though — by — and by May, by South Carolina, the debate in South Carolina, the war vote was hurting Kerry badly, and Dean was, as you suggested earlier, was starting to move.  I didn’t have a good relationship with the campaign manager, a fellow named Jim Jordan, who’d run the DSCC, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, too.  I never knew why.  And ultimately, he left in November of 2003, [00:25:00] late October/early November of 2003.  At that point, I would say that I didn’t think the campaign had a strategic plan, and I don’t really think we effectively developed one until the next fall because there was such internal disagreement about what to do.

Q:              Fall of ’03?

SHRUM:     Yeah.