Former Gore Aide Says Dems Will Unite

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with former Gore Chief of Staff Michael Feldman about the controversy over Obama's minister, the counting of Michigan and Florida, and a campaign calendar that seems to stretch to his party's convention. Political news this week has been dominated by Senator Obama's speech on race relations and his relationship with Reverend Wright. Do you think the substance of the speech helped him? Or is it possible that this subject-and the endless soundbites of Reverend Wright-hurt him more?

Michael Feldman: Well, I think it's a little too early to tell. I think it was a very thoughtful speech, and well-delivered. I think to the extent that he was navigating a really tough line, he navigated it very well. And I thought-as a lot of people have observed, including his opponent, Senator Clinton-it's a difficult subject. And he was courageous to take it on.

In terms of the outcome in the electorate, you know, we're trying to make predictions based on a bunch of discrete audiences here. It's been very well-received among audiences that either are open to his message, or are persuadable.

There's probably a cross-section of people who may be turned off by the subject altogether. And those are people that he was probably never going to reach anyway. In terms of the people in the middle, in terms of the people who are still making up their minds, race is a tough subject. And it's very hard to know, at the end of the day, how that's gonna play. Roger Simon, the columnist at Politico, praised Senator Obama's speech. But he raised a question. Why didn't Obama say this to Reverend Wright, 20 years ago, when it was politically hard, and not now, when it's politically more convenient?

Michael Feldman: Well, I don't think this is a particularly convenient time to be talking about it at all. I think he addressed his relationship with the reverend in very personal terms. I mean, he actually compared the relationship to the relationship that he has with his own grandmother.

And in putting that in such starkly personal terms, I think he said, look, there are people who are close to you who are involved in your life. And you may or may not agree with them on any particular issue, but they're still part of your world or your family, so to speak. And I think that's how he dealt with that aspect of it. Mike, you're unaligned between Clinton and Obama. You're a not-so-elder statesman in the party at this point.

Michael Feldman: Bless you for saying so. Obama's ahead, by our count, by more than 170 of the pledged delegates. He's pulled almost even among the superdelegates. How does she win this thing?

Michael Feldman: Well, I accept your math. And I understand, you know, the delegate allocation process and how making up that difference in terms of pledged delegates is a tall order for her.

But at the end of the day, what she's done is by winning in Texas and Ohio, by winning in New Hampshire, she has extended the timeline and the time horizon of the campaign. The real primary that's going on right now is this electability primary. And so, by extending the time horizon, she extended the period of time when information helps inform that debate on electability.

Her strategy, between now and then, is to get as many pledged delegates as she can get, and as many superdelegates as she can get. I think he's in a much better position. But the margin is not insurmountable if she's able to convince the majority of the remaining pledged and superdelegates that she's our best bet in the fall. And to that point about electability, there does seem to be some Democratic concern about Senator Obama's trouble with particularly white, working-class voters, as we saw in Ohio and Texas. And just recently--this is before the speech--CBS did a poll which shows that 30 percent of all voters view him less favorably as a result of the Wright controversy. How far does this electability argument have to go before it really starts breaking for Hillary Clinton?

Michael Feldman: Well, I hate to use the cop-out of not being too reliant on polling. But at a time when polling has so often led us astray, there's only so much concrete information we can divine from the polling, that we can then extend out for November and draw any conclusions. And that's especially true in the red hot glare of a controversy or something that's blown up immediately.

That said, uncommitted voters right now, people that have not had a chance to vote yet in the primary process and ultimately these superdelegates, they are watching these polls. And they are trying to determine who's our best match-up in the fall. Right now, I would say that the polling doesn't really tell us very much. It moves a lot. It's been within the margin of error. What is your view of Florida and Michigan apparently deciding not to hold re-votes?

Michael Feldman: Well, frankly, I'm surprised by it. I think the party has to figure out a way-and I think the party will ultimately figure out a way-that in two of the most important general election battleground states, the Democratic voters in those states are not disenfranchised by the process.

And so, I think that this now moves it to a new phase, where the party and the campaigns try to figure out how to make sure the delegates from those states are seated. There is no perfect solution to this problem. And my sense is that, vote or no vote, primary or no primary, caucus or no caucus, that a negotiated settlement is likely to be the end result. As a veteran of these campaigns, what is the process that candidates go through-beyond picking a running mate-to plot general election strategy, as opposed to primary campaign strategy? What is the shift that happens to try to appeal to an even broader electorate?

Michael Feldman: Well, both Democratic campaigns right now probably have one eye on the general election and are already beginning to think about what that match-up might look like. We have a presumptive Republican nominee. I'm sure some bandwidth is being devoted to pursuing that strategy.

It immediately comes down to what states are in play, what voters are persuadable in the states that are in play, and what issues matter to those voters? And that's the kind of mapping that goes on as the campaign shifts gears from the primary electorate to the general electorate.

The issue environment changes every day in a presidential campaign. So Tuesday, we were talking about the economy. And it's all we were talking about. [Wednesday] is the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. That's all we were talking about. So, it's the overlay that applies to all of these strategies is, what is going to be top of mind to voters when they go into the booth in November? To what extent can the campaigns set the agenda as opposed to reflecting the agenda?

Michael Feldman: That's an excellent question. The answer is, you can apply some level of predictability to the issues that are going to be voting issues and top of mind issues to voters. It's a very high likelihood that the economy is going to be an issue that voters are going to be paying attention to.

And so, energy and resources are devoted to taking through and trying to drive messages directed at people who are concerned about the economy. But again, the campaign, it's a non-linear process, and it is affected unpredictably by issues that become important.

The best laid plans frequently have to be set aside, when you set out in the morning to talk about health care, and that's your message of the day. And the market's dropping 500 points, the news of the day is driven by the economy. Or you know, God forbid, there's a major development or a bombing or a loss of life in Iraq. Then Iraq rises to the front page.

So campaigns have to have an approach to good planning. But they also have to be nimble enough to then fit into the current conversation, whatever that conversation may be. Switching gears a little bit, in this Wednesday's New York Times, Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee wrote that there should be a superdelegate caucus, as it were, after the primaries end, so the Democrats have certainty about who their nominee is in June rather than waiting until the end of the summer. What do you think about that?

Michael Feldman: Well, I don't know. It's like trying to provide some organization through a process that is inherently chaotic and hard to organize. I worry a little bit about anything that appears to be a star chamber of Democratic insiders, getting together to make a decision, that then either validates or not, the quote-unquote will of the electorate. I worry about anything that looks like people are getting together in a back room and making a decision.

We talk about the superdelegates like they're mysterious. But they are mainly elected. They care about the party. They're invested. They have constituencies. And they want to win in November. And so I think what's likely to happen is each of these superdelegates is going to make a decision more organically.

I do agree that it's more helpful to the party if that decision-making takes place closer to June than to August. I think around June 3-once all the primaries are done, and the voters have spoken-I think in short order, the process will begin to sort itself out. I think there's going to be enough information available then for automatic delegates to make a choice. Finally, your former boss, Al Gore, has been suggested as the kind of person, if any such person exists, who could be able to broker some sort of deal, if need be, between Obama and Clinton. Could he, or should he, assume that role?

Michael Feldman: Well, I certainly don't speak for him. And you shouldn't read too much into what I say about this in terms of his thinking on it. I actually don't know. But look, I understand why people look to him or point to him. I understand why he's on that list of people referred to as quote-unquote party elders.

I can't think of anybody else who's more universally respected in the party. But I don't see him angling for or rushing to a position of influence in that process.

You know, he's achieved a kind of unique place in the public consciousness, and certainly in the Democratic Party. And that's to his credit. But I don't think a party elder or power broker is a position that he's particularly interested in. I can't predict what will happen and certainly wouldn't rule anything out on his behalf because I just don't know.

And the other thing I would say is, these things tend to work themselves out. The party-as undisciplined as it looks, and as chaotic as it looks-is pretty good at this. There is an elegance to the nominating process. And it tends to produce a nominee, and it tends to produce a nominee who will be stronger and carrying the mantle of a party that is going to be stronger and more energized in the general election as a result of the process.

Michael Feldman served as senior adviser and traveling chief of staff to Al Gore from 1997-2001. Feldman is a Founding Partner at the Glover Park Group, a corporate consulting firm in Washington D.C. Feldman began his political life as a Floor Assistant in the Senate Democratic Cloakroom, then served as a Legislative Analyst for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. He joined the Clinton campaign staff in 1992, and joined the administration as Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs to the Vice President. Feldman is a graduate of Tufts University.

By Brian Goldsmith