From The Hospital, The Big Dog Takes Control
OK Karl, Let's see how good you really are.
At a time when his doctors and wife were asking him to take it easy in advance of his now-successful bypass surgery, Bill Clinton for all intents and purposes took control of the Kerry campaign over the weekend. According to the New York Times and Washington Post this morning. Clinton had phone conversations with Kerry Friday and Saturday telling him what he needed to do the remainder of the campaign, and what personnel changes needed to be made.
Former President Bill Clinton, in a 90-minute telephone conversation from his hospital room, offered John Kerry detailed advice on Saturday night on how to reinvigorate his candidacy, as Mr. Kerry enlisted more Clinton advisers to help shape his strategy and message for the remainder of the campaign.
In an expansive conversation, Mr. Clinton, who is awaiting heart surgery, told Mr. Kerry that he should move away from talking about Vietnam, which had been the central theme of his candidacy, and focus instead on drawing contrasts with President Bush on job creation and health care policies, officials with knowledge of the conversation said.
In addition to the strategic advice, Kerry at Clintonís urging finally brought in the heavy guns for the final 60 days.
The conversation and the recruitment of old Clinton hands came amid rising concern among Democrats about the state of Mr. Kerry's campaign and criticism that he had been too slow to respond to attacks on his military record or to engage Mr. Bush on domestic policy. Among the better-known former Clinton aides who are expected to play an increasingly prominent role are James Carville, Paul Begala and Stanley Greenberg, campaign aides said.
Members of both camps played down any suggestion of a Clinton takeover of a troubled campaign and insisted there was no tension between the two groups. Still, these days, Mr. Lockhart is stationed in an office on one side of the campaign war room; Mr. Shrum's office is on the opposite side.
On Saturday, Mr. (Joel) Johnson drew applause from Democrats assembled for a weekly strategy meeting at Mr. Kerry's headquarters when he reassured aides that the campaign had settled on a clear line of attack against Mr. Bush, people at the meeting said. They said Mr. Johnson told the group that the campaign wanted the entire party to heed the new talking points.
"It's very simple," Mr. Johnson said in an interview yesterday, describing what he said would be the template for Mr. Kerry's speeches and advertisements in the weeks ahead. "It's: 'Bush has taken us in the wrong direction. If you want more of the same for the next four years, vote for President Bush. If you want a new direction, John Kerry and John Edwards.' It's not complicated. Failed policies, jobs and the economy, health care."
Officials with knowledge of the Clinton conversation said it came after Mr. Kerry called Mr. Clinton at Columbia-Presbyterian Center of New York Presbyterian Hospital on Friday to wish him well. Mr. Clinton, who was described by advisers as concerned by the direction of the Kerry campaign, thanked him and suggested that the two men talk over the weekend about the campaign, which they did Saturday night.
The telephone conversation, which was described as detailed and expansive, with Mr. Kerry doing more listening than talking, also included Mr. Lockhart, who joined Mr. Kerry's campaign as a senior adviser about two weeks ago. Mr. Lockhart declined to comment on the conversation.
People close to Mr. Kerry said he was receptive to the counsel and was moving to widen his circle of advisers in the face of mounting concern among prominent Democrats about the potency of Mr. Bush's campaign. They noted that Mr. Clinton and his strategists were architects of the only winning Democratic presidential drives since 1976. Even so, some of Mr. Kerry's aides insisted that their seeking help from Mr. Clinton was not a reflection of flaws in their campaign.
Mr. Begala, who said he would remain a CNN commentator, said he was delighted with the changes. He added that Mr. Bush had succeeded over the past month in transforming the race from a referendum on an incumbent president to a referendum on Mr. Kerry.
"It was an enormous shift," Mr. Begala said last night. Then, referring to Karl Rove, a top Bush strategist, he added: "And it required the cooperation of the candidate. And you know what? The Kerry campaign is no longer cooperating. Sorry, Karl."
Mr. Clinton's engagement in the campaign is new but hardly surprising.
Throughout the 2004 campaign, Mr. Clinton has offered advice to any Democratic presidential candidate who would listen, including Mr. Kerry. And he told Mr. Kerry's advisers before his hospitalization that he would play a major role campaigning for Mr. Kerry this fall. In 2000, Mr. Clinton made no secret of his dismay that his vice president, Al Gore, did not turn to him more for counsel and campaigning help.
And if you want evidence that Clintonís team needed to come aboard now, you need look no further than the inane comments from the current Kerry team of Tad Devine and Bob Shrum.
"We talked about this last year, the fact that Republicans would come after his service and the idea that they would come after what he did when he got home," said one midlevel Kerry adviser who is not part of the Clinton camp. "The idea that we got caught flat-footed is just crazy."
Mr. Shrum, in an interview yesterday, called such second-guessing "ridiculous," saying, "We responded within six or seven days.
Six or seven days? You call that a response, Ace? You can be buried in six or seven days.
"I was strongly in favor of responding to the Swift boats when we did or around when we did, and so was Mary Beth," Mr. Shrum said, referring to Ms. Cahill and the advertisements by the Vietnam veterans critical of Mr. Kerry.
Then why didnít you do it, clown?
Mr. Devine said any lack of clarity of Mr. Kerry's message was due to the campaign's running few advertisements in the past five weeks. He said the polls are showing a downturn they always planned for.
Exactly. Whose bright idea was it to run few advertisements in August, bonehead? The fact is that Joe Trippi was right: Kerry should have sworn off the public money and kept raising private funds for the general election so that Kerry wouldnít be limited to $75 million over a longer period of time than Bush, thereby allowing him to run commercials during August without regard for conserving money.
On Sunday, campaign officials said John Sasso, who has been running the general election operations at the Democratic National Committee, will shift roles to become Kerry's senior adviser aboard the candidate's campaign plane. Michael Whouley, who helped rescue Kerry's campaign in Iowa during the nomination battle, will take over Sasso's responsibilities at the DNC, reprising the role he played for Al Gore four years ago.
This is key because Sasso knows Kerry well, knows how to do a bare-knuckles campaign, and can be close to Kerry to facilitate quick decisions. And Whouley is the best field operations man in the business.
"This is a critical decision because John Sasso has enormous credibility, and all of a sudden the center of power moves from the ground to the plane, where decisions can be made quickly," said Tony Coelho, who managed Gore's 2000 campaign for a time. "It tells me we have an independent thinker with Kerry who can get things done."
"We need someone on the plane who has a relationship with him and is an adult," said a senior campaign official, who asked for anonymity to talk more freely about strategy. "You need heavier fire power here. There is no room for error in days to come, and this takes the pressure off of headquarters."
So, it looks like we may get to see the Super Bowl of campaigns after all, Rove and the GOP mafia against Team Clinton. The biggest difference is that the Big Dog himself wonít be the man on the stump, and that is huge. But I suspect that youíll see a huge boost in the enthusiasm of the base when Clinton returns late in October for some last-minute assistance to Kerry, when Kerry is known to close extremely well, as the Los Angeles Times noted today.
See, the media coverage of Kerry as the underdog who rallies is already taking hold. And with the Clinton team coming aboard, letís see how good Karl Rove really is.
So strap it up kids. We've finally got a real war on our hands with the A-Team on our side now.