Top campaign strategists for Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama brought the early intensity of the 2008 presidential race to Harvard Monday night (March 19), scrabbling for position on a key campaign issue: the Iraq War.
In an extended exchange toward the end of a 90-minute panel discussion in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Hillary Clinton for President senior strategist Mark Penn disputed whether there was any difference between the positions of Obama and Clinton on the war, saying that the votes of the two in the U.S. Senate on the war were virtually identical.
“Let’s not try to create false differences when we both agree it’s time to de-escalate, when we both agree it’s time to end this war,” Penn said. “There’s very little difference in the Senate, where people cast votes.”
Barack Obama 2008 senior strategist David Axelrod refused to give up ground on the issue, stemming from anti-war comments Obama made before being elected to the Senate, in 2002, when Clinton voted to authorize Bush to go to war in Iraq.
Axelrod said Penn was using partial quotes from Obama to support his position, saying Obama has clearly been against the war all along and asking whether they’re going to “spend the next 10 months savaging each other.”
The exchange was part of a panel discussion that also featured Jonathan Prince, senior strategist for John Edwards for President. Mark Halperin, ABC News political director and joint visiting fellow for the Institute of Politics and the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and Mark McKinnon, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School and chief media adviser to President Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, moderated the session.
Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones introduced the event, saying it was initially designed to provide an early look at the issues that would dominate the coming race, but that the race had heated up so quickly that “we’re right in the middle of it.”
The event, “Campaign 2008: Looking Ahead,” was co-sponsored by the Institute of Politics and the Shorenstein Center and follows a similar gathering March 5 that featured strategists for top Republican campaigns.
The Democrats wasted no time focusing their attacks on President Bush, responding to the initial question about the reason the campaign is so active so early is that the American people are eager for a leadership change.
“The intensity is because people want the election tomorrow. They want President Bush gone tomorrow,” Penn said.
Each of the campaigns said young voters are important in this race. Prince said that young voters care about issues that also resonate with the rest of the electorate: global warming, energy, climate change, and universal health care. He urged them to become active.
Axelrod said today’s political leaders aren’t providing good examples for young people, the group most affected by the Iraq War. Axelrod said the Obama campaign is about changing the political paradigm, about “lowering your voice and raising your sights.”
All three strategists heavily touted their campaign’s Web sites and said that unconventional media are an important way to connect with voters, to show voters their candidates more fully, and to reach voters directly instead of through the filter of the traditional news organizations. They also said that involving a candidate’s family members is fair game, since one’s family tells voters about a person.
The strategists agreed that, in the case of a president, character is as important as political positions, since, during his or her term, the president will have to deal with a changing world that presents challenges on issues not dealt with during the campaign.
Prince said that after the Bush presidency, voters are ready for dramatic change, and, thus, bold initiatives on a host of issues are now possible.
Penn made the pitch that the nation is ready for a woman president and that it’s time to pass that milestone as a nation, since women make up 54 percent of the electorate.
All three strategists said their candidates support increased spending on health care, both at home and abroad.