McCain chief strategist Steve Schmidt and Obama campaign manager David Plouffe seemed to agree on a central point: McCain was always the longest of long-shot candidates. (You would not have known this from hearing either of them talk during the campaign.)
Schmidt, the father of hundreds of attacks on Obama, spoke of the president’s political skills with unabashed admiration.
“This was, in my view, the unfinished Bobby Kennedy campaign – the idealism, the passion, the inspiration he gave to people, it was organic and it was real and it wasn’t manufactured at a tactical level in the campaign.”
The McCain campaign, Schmidt said, was “the strategic equivalent of throwing a football through a tire at 50 yards,” an analogy that Plouffe agreed with – though he said he hadn’t seen it that way at the time.
Schmidt returned again and again to the notion that McCain’s defeat was essentially pre-ordained, a comfortable belief that’s now widely held among McCain’s former aides, and was fairly common among them even during the final weeks of the campaign.
“We were running a campaign under extra difficult circumstances – the state of the Republican party, the president’s unpopularity, the economy – a lot of issues that were not John McCain’s fault but were John McCain’s problem in this race,” Schmidt said. “When Lehman Brothers collapsed in the fall I knew pretty much right away that ... from an electoral strategy perspective, the campaign was finished,” he said.
Plouffe was not quite content to grant Schmidt that the campaigns’ managers had nothing to do with the outcome. In fact, he said, he sympathized with Schmidt’s position of seeing only one, narrow path to victory because he’d faced it himself – in the primary.
“We thought that nine times out of ten Hillary Clinton would probably win the primary,” he said. “If we made one big mistake we’d be out of the race.”
The two men’s time as students at this relatively small state college – Vice President Joe Biden is also a Blue Hen – was the strange campaign coincidence that led to their afternoon talk at the campus' Clayton Hall, where they were introduced by professor and former CNN world affairs corresspondant Ralph Begleiter,
Delaware is, so to speak, the two politicos' Almost Mater. Schmidt attended the University from 1988 to 1993 and Plouffe attended from 1985 fall 1988. Both were – and, in fact, are – political science majors: A spokeswoman for the university, Andrea Boyle, said one part of the day’s visit had been a meeting with school officials to hash out the details of finishing their respective degrees.
Plouffe, who dropped out to work on Tom Harkin’s presidential campaign and caught the political bug and never returned, will do some on line work “via distance learning” and “will come back to campus to finish some in person, while he works on his book, she said.
Schmidt, who is just one math class short of his degree, will complete it online, Boyle said.
“It drives me nuts –I want my political science degree,” Schmidt joked after his speech.
Schmidt and Plouffe spoke to a crowd of some 400 students and faculty, including students in a class titled Leadership, Integrity, and Change who were assigned, according to their professor, James Morrison, to “put each of them in a category – whether they're transformational or transactinal.”
What Schmidt was, mostly, was resigned: He recounted the frustrations and desperation of the campaign, culminating with the decision that insiders continue to debate: To nominate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, rather than McCain’s first choice, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, for vice president.
After taking soundings on Lieberman, Schmidt said, “It was communicated back to us very clearly from within the party that not only was Senator Lieberman not acceptable, but any pro-choice nominee was not acceptable, [and] it would lead to a floor fight at the convention with an alternate nominee for Vice President put into play.”
“Blowing up the party wasn’t one of the menu items of things that were going to improve our situation,” he said.
He also explained his decision to deny Palin an election night speech as a nod to the fact that the concession is a “singular moment” in American public life.
“It begins the process by which power is transferred peacefully,” he said.
Plouffe, still a key advisor to the White House political operation, also reflected on Obama’s first hundred days, and argued that his agenda is as ambitious as promised, and brushed off the notion that Obama is doing too much.
“Only in Washington would this be a credible debate – that maybe we should wait to make our country more energy independent and create cutting-edge green jobs, maybe we should wait to cut healthcare costs that are strangling business and families, maybe we should wait to create more graduates in math and science,” he said. “This isn’t even a decision for [Obama].”
“One of the tough things about this politically is that a lot of the progress we make in these areas won’t always be evident in the next election or the one after that or the one after that,” Plouffe said.
“In 20 or 25 years when we have wind turbines all over this country and solar panels and we’ve figured out how to deal with coal emissions and we’ve figured out how to deal with nuclear storage and we’re exporting jobs and technology around the world,” Plouffe said, it will be clear “that at this moment Washington for the first time in a long time answered the call and did the right thing.”
Schmidt, for his part, granted that Obama had been a success, politically at least, so far – and was harder on his own party.
“As a matter of reality, in the first 100 days, [the GOP] has not done anything to improve its political position with regards to the fact that it has been a shrinking entity,” he said.