Nation & World

War Stories: Inside Campaign 2008 at the Institute of Politics

5 min read

No one will ever confuse the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Harvard Kennedy School with Gillette Stadium. But the forum was host Thursday evening (Dec. 11) to two of the undisputed rock stars of American political campaigns: David Axelrod and David Plouffe, chief strategist and manager, respectively, for Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the presidency.

They were joined by Sen. John McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis and chief pollster Bill McInturff for a program titled “War Stories: Inside Campaign 2008.”

The idea, as moderator Gwen Ifill, managing editor of Washington Week and a member of the senior advisory committee of the Institute of Politics, explained, was to give the two sides an opportunity to engage “in a way that you never saw them engage on Fox News” during the campaign itself.

The two camps showed good sportsmanship in discussing what went right, what went wrong, and what almost went wrong. The Obama team was gracious in victory but not above pointing out the “Faustian bargains” McCain had made to secure the Republican nomination — notably by signing on to the Bush tax cuts. The McCain team, for their part, gave a spirited defense of their man and their campaign.

McInturff, for instance, in response to a pointed question from Ifill about the brave face he put on polling data in the final days before the campaign, insisted, “I’m very comfortable that we were a heck of a lot closer the week before than two weeks before.” Things were moving in the right direction, he added.

Did that mean that the McCain campaign just ran out of time? Ifill asked.

“No, we lost,” was the frank rejoinder. Part of the issue was that the Obama campaign had signed up so many new voters that the pollsters had trouble making predictions. “We had no models for that kind of turnout,” McInturff added, noting that all this was to the Obama campaign’s “enormous credit.”

The Jeremiah Wright episode — when video clips of Obama’s controversial pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ burst into the blogosphere in March — was critical to both campaigns, albeit in different ways. Obama smoothed the waters by giving a well-received speech in Philadelphia March 18 on race in America.

Plouffe deflected blame for the incident from candidate Obama (“The campaign failed to do its homework”) and called it “a moment of great peril.”

Axelrod observed that “the one person who wasn’t nervous” was Obama — despite the tight timeline for writing and making the speech, which the strategist called “maybe the most important speech of the campaign.”

The night before Obama was to give the speech, Axelrod said, there came a point when he realized he could do nothing and so he just “went to sleep.” At 2 a.m. he woke up and found the completed speech on his BlackBerry. He read it and responded to his boss, “This is why you should be president.”

For the McCain campaign, the question was whether to make an issue of the Wright controversy, and his aides gave their candidate full credit for doing the right thing for the right reasons: “It was John McCain’s decision,” McInturff said. The pollster also gave Davis credit to standing up, as the campaign wore on, to Republican Party pressure to reverse course and exploit Obama’s connection to the fiery preacher.

As McInturff told it, McCain’s decision not to touch the Wright stuff was initially one of instinctively doing the right thing. But as the campaign continued, it was clear that it was the right decision tactically, too. Going after Wright wouldn’t have helped with the groups — young people and Hispanics — who were slipping away from the Republicans. To have pressed ahead and won the White House with 273 Electoral College votes while losing the popular vote would have “delegitimized the presidency,” McInturff said.

The scandal surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s alleged attempt to auction Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder came up at a couple of points. Axelrod was asked when he had last spoken with Blagojevich: “Thankfully, a long time ago.”

Later a questioner from the floor tried to elicit some information on why longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who was at one point seen as a candidate for the Obama seat, at another point suddenly wasn’t. Comparing Obama to Nelson Mandela in terms of steadiness and intuitiveness, the questioner asked whether some “intuition” on Obama’s part led him to name Jarrett to a role as a White House adviser instead.

Axelrod’s response was that Jarrett is a longtime friend and adviser. “His preference was always that she serve in the White House.”

Ifill’s question whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin helped or hurt the GOP ticket elicited this response from Davis: “To be honest, we were losing. … You’ve got to win first.” He acknowledged that Palin seemed a riskier pick on Oct. 1 than on Sept. 6, and conceded, “We’ve got to work on our bench.”

McInturff, however, noted that Palin has some of the strongest “very favorable” ratings among Republicans and is likely to be a force within the party over the next four to eight years.