Transcription – Robert Shrum Interview

Q:              OK.  What do you think the virtue that the — you know, what’s the benefit [00:34:00] to the candidate, the specific benefits, of having somebody who’s done this before, has been down this road before, which Kerry had never been, running a national primary campaign?

SHRUM:     Yeah.  I think you’d have to go back pretty far to find a campaign that — where there wasn’t someone involved at a pretty high level, who had some experience in presidential politics.  I mean, some people would cite the Kennedy campaign, but actually, Robert Kennedy had spent the entire ’56 campaign traveling with Adlai Stevenson, where I don’t think he was much talked to or listened to, but he observed a lot.  So…  You know, and if you look at Obama or you look at McCain, I mean, you know, any of these folks who win the nomination, or Hillary Clinton, for that matter, they’re going to always be veterans of presidential campaigns around.

Q:              And again, what [00:35:00] — what’s the added value, the kind of experience you have versus the candidate?

SHRUM:     Well, you know a lot about, say, the dynamic of Iowa.  You might, you know…  I mean, I felt pretty confident arguing the centrality of Iowa for us because we were not in the same position as Gephardt.  First of all, Gephardt, because he was seen as protectionist in ’88, was not as acceptable to a lot of people in the Democratic Party as Kerry was, generally, once he started to win.  And secondly, if we won Iowa in the way you raise money in the world now, I believe the money would come pouring in very rapidly, and we would not be in the same position that we were in, in 1988.  So, that’s an example.

Q:              So, once Kerry became the de facto —

SHRUM:     You know, you also know — you know, you don’t — you know how to read a poll, you know how to translate the poll into 30-second ads, or hopefully you do.  [00:36:00]  You know how to form and shape a message.

Q:              Well, you’re still being more modest than I think you need to be.

SHRUM:     Well, I mean, I don’t — you know, I — Look, I had a very good relationship with John Kerry, I still do, and you know, we talked about almost everything.

Q:              He — I think you wrote in your book that Kerry would have been great as president for the hard decisions, and you mentioned earlier how good he was in a crisis, but the easier decisions wouldn’t have come as easily or as well.

SHRUM:     I think his great strength, and we’re seeing it now as secretary of state, is how well he does when things are tough.  When things got tough, and the combination of Swift Boats, the internal campaign disorder that we had for several weeks, and the Republican Convention held in New York on the anniversary of 9/11 [00:37:00] left us in a deep hole, he just one day said, “Look, we’re going to stop all this arguing.  The only thing that matters here right now is the first debate — we’re going to focus on the first debate and, you know, Bob’s going to run the debate prep and that’s that and we’re not arguing about it.”  He was very good at things like that.  He was — Once he had the nomination secured and we had the unity dinner and Bill Clinton spoke at it and everything else, we had the great benefit in leading up to Iowa and even New Hampshire that not a lot of people wanted to give us advice.  That made it really easy to execute — come to a strategy and execute it.  Once he had the nomination, everybody wanted to give us advice.  And there was too much of a tendency to listen to everybody for a while.

Q:              So, by sometime early in ’04, the Bush people know [00:38:00] they’re running against John Kerry, and launch a series of critical ads, and in particular, seize on this — Kerry’s voted for the $87 billion, voted against it before he voted for it, or whatever it was.

SHRUM:     That’s actually — It’s a more complicated story than that.

Q:              Please tell it.

SHRUM:     They ran — The Bush people ran ads accusing Kerry of being a flip-flopper because he had voted against the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and he had voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq.  We tested those ads, both in polling and in focus groups, and they had no impact whatsoever.  I mean, people said, “Well, that was, you know, 12, 14 years ago, that was a long time ago, I don’t remember all the details on it.”  And so, the flip-flop argument had no life, at that point.  But they threw in one of their ads — and I think they knew exactly what they were doing, it was very smart — that Kerry [00:39:00] had voted against the $87 billion supplemental to support the troops in Iraq.  And Kerry, who is a veteran and has worked very hard in veterans’ issues, is very sensitive about anything that implies that he doesn’t care about the soldiers in the field, especially the ordinary soldiers in the field.  And he went to a campaign event in West Virginia where there were a lot of vets.  And the Bush ad had run in West Virginia, and he got asked about the $87 billion.  And for once in his life, he was not nuanced.  He was always accused of being nuanced — well, being nuanced here would have been very helpful, where he would say, “Of course I favored the $87 billion, but I wanted to see to it that we established the benchmarks so we knew whether we were succeeding or failing in Iraq, and I wanted to pay for it, and I wanted to pay for it by repealing part of the Bush tax cuts for the folks at the top.”  [00:40:00]  That would have been — That answer would not have gotten him in any trouble at all, but I think when this vet — and I think it was a vet who asked him — asked about it, he was incredibly pithy.  He said, “Actually, I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”  Mary Beth came and got me — I was in Washington, so was she — and said, “We have a problem.”  And that was the foundation of the flip-flop argument, and really, really made it more credible to voters.

Q:              By the way, it was P-I-T-H-Y, right?

SHRUM:     Pithy.

Q:              Pithy, yeah, (laughter) just for the transcriber.  Well, what did you think the challenge was going to be, the strategic challenge, of defeating President Bush?

SHRUM:     Well, you had to pass the commander-in-chief threshold, which despite Swift Boats, if you look at the exit polls, [00:41:00] I think Kerry ultimately did.  And you had to pull the race.  You had to make sure the race wasn’t just about national security issues, but was about jobs and social security and Medicare, you know, issues that are good for Democrats.  The Bush campaign never wanted to talk about domestic issues, throughout the entire period.  They understood, if I reflect back on it, I remember right after 9/11, assuming that Bush was going to become a kind of president of everybody.  That the rallying around that we saw after 9/11 could be built upon, that he could widely consult Democrats, make them part of the whole effort to respond to this.  Means he probably couldn’t have invaded Iraq because people would have said, “Let’s wait and see what the weapons inspectors find,” but I [00:42:00] assumed that’s what he was going to be, and that the Democrats couldn’t win in 2004 if Bush was like that.  But Bush decided to run a base campaign, where it was all about just turning out the base and really pushing the right.  I mean, that’s why I think the president’s initial reaction to the Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage was, “Why would we put that in the Constitution?”  And I think Rove then explained to him, they weren’t putting it in the Constitution, they were putting it out there in certain swing states to drive certain fundamentalist voters.  So, they didn’t want to talk about any of these issues, and in fact, they ended the campaign in Ohio, which was the most critical place — it was actually not their ad, it was the ad of a group that was supporting the president with an ad called “Ashley,” where there was this little girl who tells the story of her mother being killed on 9/11, and the president [00:43:00] coming to Ohio and comforting her and saying, “I feel safe because of him.”  That, combined with the Osama bin Laden tape, really hurt us.  I don’t know whether Mark [Mellman] told you this, but in the polling before the Osama bin Laden state, in the swing states — the tape in the swing states, we were four points ahead, and by Monday, we were one point ahead, and so, the tide was moving the wrong way.  So, strategically, in — with the exception of a stupid excursion into talking about a weapons dump in Iraq that, you know, was looted, which we spent several days on until both John Sasso and I thought it was stupid, and Kerry finally said, “This is ridiculous, I’m not doing it anymore.”  We were spending a lot of time at the end talking about social security, education, the economy, and our polls showed us doing very well by doing that.