Dem Strategist Sees Challenges For Obama

Doug Schoen Harper Collins

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, following Barack Obama's primary victory in Oregon and his loss in Kentucky, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with former Bill Clinton adviser Doug Schoen about blue collar voters, Hillary Clinton's campaign strategy, and the politics of national security.

CBSNews.com: The Democratic presidential race is now winding down--and yet, Senator Clinton still won a 35 point victory in Kentucky this week, another massive win among white working class voters. How serious is Senator Obama's problem with that group? And does he actually have to win them in a general election?

Doug Schoen: Well, he's got to win them somewhere in the general election. And it is a serious problem. I mean, he's probably not going to win West Virginia. He's got to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, He'll probably lose Florida and try to make up for that in the West and Mountain States. But the answer simply is it is a real, ongoing problem for him.

CBSNews.com: And has he shown any serious signs of recognizing the problem, or doing something to confront it?

Doug Schoen: I think he recognizes it. I'm not sure he's done anything yet to directly confront it.

CBSNews.com: What do you think he should do?

Doug Schoen: Well, I think that he needs, first, to develop a program that reaches out to working class white voters. Second, I think he should consider someone like Senator Clinton or New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg as a running mate, to speak directly to the economic concerns of working class voters. And third, I think he needs to start focusing his campaign where he both has done badly and needs to win.

CBSNews.com: And what kind of an economic program does that need to be?

Doug Schoen: I think he needs to lay out a comprehensive economic message of what he's going to do to revitalize the economy, deal with the sub-prime crisis, and create good paying jobs for working people.

CBSNews.com: Now Obama's campaign points out that he won whites in Oregon and Virginia and Wisconsin, and he won them in Iowa--where he spoke this week to declare that he has a majority of the pledged delegates. So how do you explain the difference between his performance in those states versus Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Texas?

Doug Schoen: I think the states that he has done well in are either states that have a more liberal tradition, a more progressive tradition, particularly for Democratic primary voters--or states where the white electorate tends to be, in a Democratic primary, somewhat further to the left.

But mainstream working class voters in states like--you can go across the board--Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Florida, all prove to be problematic for him. So I think he's got a problem. And he's got a couple a states he's done okay in. But they do not, to me, suggest that the problem is solved.

CBSNews.com: And to what extent do you think there are some white voters who will never vote for an African-American for President? Or do you think that the racial component of this is overstated?

Doug Schoen: I think the racial component is overstated. I think people have doubts about Barack. I think they have doubts about his program. And I think they have some doubts about people like Reverend Wright. And I don't think that is necessarily racially motivated, though I would suggest that black liberation theology and some of the outrageous things that Reverend Wright has said certainly raise the specter of concern about race--separate and apart from Barack Obama--with working class voters who might be very, very concerned with the message.

CBSNews.com: Now another component of Senator Clinton's base, with which Barack Obama has had some trouble, is white women. And they are obviously a key swing voting group in a general election. Do you think they will defect to McCain, or stay home, or ultimately come back to the Democratic fold?

Doug Schoen: I think that is an open question. One of the reasons why I think it makes so much sense to put Senator Clinton, potentially, on the ticket is I think it's probably the most demonstrable and obvious step he can take to assuage the concerns of those voters.

CBSNews.com: And do you think Senator McCain is taking the right steps to try to reach out to the Clinton voters who may be uncomfortable with Obama?

Doug Schoen: I think he's got to do that. But he's got one problem. He's got a noose thrown around his neck in George Bush. And I think those working class voters have made it very clear they've had it with the policies of the Bush administration. And to date, John McCain, I don't think, has sufficiently separated himself from George Bush to give those voters comfort.

CBSNews.com: McCain won't change his beliefs on the war. So what do you think he could do to separate himself?

Doug Schoen: Well, I think he needs, again, an economic agenda that shows that he's for pro-growth policies, low taxes, and concern about training and retraining workers to give people a sense that he's a different kind of a Republican. So far, I think he's started that process, but by no means closed the deal.

CBSNews.com: A lot of Obama partisans have argued that his weaknesses are exaggerated right now in the heat of a primary battle. They say that in this environment in which 80 percent of the public thinks we're on the wrong track, Bush has the highest disapproval of any President in modern history, that this is a Democratic year and Obama will do fine.

Doug Schoen: Again, to me, it's an open question. I think it's certainly the case that the wind is at the back of Barack Obama. And I think if I had to bet, I would bet that Obama will beat John McCain. But that being said, when you look at states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida--states the Democrats traditionally need to win--there's every reason to believe that this will be a much more competitive election than the numbers on wrong track and presidential approval would suggest.

CBSNews.com: Do you think Senator Clinton has any hope of becoming the nominee?

Doug Schoen: I think she's got a very small chance. I would overwhelmingly suggest that it is most likely that Barack Obama will be nominated. But until the issue is resolved, and until the superdelegates weigh in after June 3rd, there's always a chance.

CBSNews.com: Now a lot of people have looked back at her campaign and have pointed fingers at your former business partner, Mark Penn. They've criticized his strategy. They say he underestimated the power of the change message this year, that he didn't understand the importance of the caucus states and the way that delegates are allocated. Do you think those criticisms are valid?

Doug Schoen: Well, I guess what I would say is the following: This is a campaign that has gotten 47, 48 percent of the vote from the pledged delegates. There has been a real tide in America towards Barack Obama, a tide toward a fresh face. Mark was getting extraordinarily good ratings and reviews in September and October when she was leading.

He was not responsible for running the campaign, or making decisions about which states to compete in. I think, when you lose, there's plenty of blame to go around. And I think it's frankly unfair to point the finger at Mark Penn.

CBSNews.com: It's obviously easy to Monday morning quarterback. But in retrospect, what do you think she could have done differently, or should have done differently?

Doug Schoen: Well again, you know, I don't think it was Mark who decided that the race was going to be over February 5th. I think that was the conventional wisdom of most people. And I think that you take out those 11 caucuses that she lost, I think it was in February, and she's the nominee.

But also, I would go back to something else. I would say, look, if I told you six months ago that she was going to win California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and that she would not be the nominee, most people would have laughed. And I think just the vagaries of the way we pick delegates--the number of delegates that are apportioned per vote in the popular vote versus in a caucus--has been so skewed away from her, that it's almost like the process was apparently or effectively skewed against her.

Now, look, everybody can compete fairly. I'm not saying that anything was rigged against her. But I'm saying that she demonstrated a very broad and deep level of support that we saw [this week] as well as earlier. And, you know what? I just think the Democratic Party has to look at the system of apportioning delegates and be much closer to a one man, one vote system.

CBSNews.com: Does she bear any blame, Senator Clinton, for apparently not playing under that current system, flawed though it may be?

Doug Schoen: I've been in campaigns for 30 years. And campaigns ultimately take on the personality of the candidate. I think Senator Clinton has been a terrific candidate. I think she's delivered her message in a really compelling way, particularly in the last few weeks.

But, that being said, if the campaign wins, you give credit to the candidate. And if the campaign loses ultimately, it's at the candidate's doorstep. You can't say, "Oh, you know, it's the advisor's fault," or this or that.

But I don't sit and point the finger at Hillary Clinton. I think she's been a fabulous candidate. And if I were making the decisions, I would make her Barack Obama's running mate or consider her very strongly for that job very, very, very quickly.

CBSNews.com: And finally, you've written a lot in The Wall Street Journal about the power of the national security issue for Democrats. McCain chose, in effect, to open the general election campaign with an attack on Obama's position of unconditionally meeting with enemies of the United States. Who won that initial fight?

Doug Schoen: Well, here's the thing. I think, on this initial exchange, Barack Obama won. I think he came back compellingly, made it clear that under Bush, we've become less secure. Iran had become a more dangerous nation.

But I think that's where [McCain's] campaign is going. And I think they're going to try to merge national security with concerns about Reverend Wright, William Ayers, and the like, to make the argument, you can't trust Barack Obama. And do I think it'll be successful? No, I don't, because I think Barack's going to win the election. But as McCain said, tune in in the fall, you'll be hearing a lot more about this.


By Brian Goldsmith
  • Brian Goldsmith

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