During a three-day conference last week at the Kennedy School of Government, the managers of five of the recent U.S. presidential campaigns dissected the history that they helped make.
The Campaign for President Conference, a quadrennial tradition that dates to 1972, gave the campaigns’ main movers and shakers a chance to share their thoughts about the race, trade war stories, philosophize a bit – and get in a few last jabs.
“It was a tremendous journey that I won’t forget any time soon,” said Al Gore’s Campaign Manager Donna Brazile. “If we have to do it again, we’ll just have to get 50 million-plus [votes] and then allow all those votes to be counted.”
Brazile’s remark, aimed at Bush Campaign chief strategist Karl Rove, brought a laugh from the audience and was just several referring to the prolonged Florida vote count that marked – and extended – the campaign’s end. Rove repaid Brazile a few moments later, commenting that one decision he wouldn’t change was winding up the campaign in Tennessee. Tennessee is Gore’s home state and proved an embarrassing loss when it was carried by Bush.
The three-day conference, sponsored by the Institute of Politics, was largely conducted behind closed doors and off the record, at least initially. All the conversations were tape-recorded and will be used to create a book of the conference. The one public event, where Brazile and Rove made their comments, was a Friday evening panel discussion in the Kennedy School’s ARCO Forum.
“This is the rarest of the rare chances to analyze the race for the White House and see what went wrong, what went right,” said Institute of Politics Director David Pryor. “Political campaigns are the heartbeat of the American political system. [This is a chance to] peel away the fluff and even the glossy façade of a political campaign.”
The 90-minute event featured Brazile; Rove; Gina Glantz, manager of Democrat Bill Bradley’s primary campaign; Rick Davis, who managed Republican John McCain’s primary campaign; and Theresa Amato, campaign manager for Ralph Nader’s Green Party general election campaign.
The election may be over, but for the participants the memories are fresh. Responses and discussion were often phrased in the familiar rhetoric of the campaign. Amato echoed the Nader campaign’s insistence that corporate money is ruining American politics. Davis spoke of “real people” becoming interested in politics because of McCain’s candidacy. And Rove, now senior adviser to the president, rattled off a list of Bush’s promised initiatives, such as Social Security reform and fighting poverty with faith-based charities.
Audience members said they were surprised at both how frank the campaign managers were and at how fresh the wounds still appeared to be.
“People came away a bit more bruised than they have in the past,” said Kennedy School student Shanti Nayak.
One of the few areas of agreement among the five was their dislike of the role played by the media. Press coverage, they said, was either too little, was focused on the wrong things, or was dominated by a few reporters from the major newspapers, television networks, and wire services.
“By and large, we didn’t like it,” Brazile said of the coverage. “They were interested in the horse race and the palace intrigue.”
Another area of agreement was that something is wrong with the political system, or at least with the public’s perception of it. When 100 million voters stay home, they agreed, something has to be done. One of the problems, however, is that the voters who didn’t vote are demographically very similar to those who did. That makes figuring out why they’re staying home difficult.
Whatever’s wrong with the electorate, all five agreed that increased participation in the political system will help. They urged members of the audience to get involved. If ever there was an election that showed how important the efforts of a few individuals can be, it was the narrow 2000 contest.
“If you ever hear someone say ‘My vote doesn’t count,’ remind them of the 2000 election,” Davis said. “The one thing this election should have taught everyone is you don’t know what will happen next.”