CAMPAIGN JOURNAL Bad Message by Ryan Lizza, The New Republic November 22, 2004 Last Saturday night at H2O, a waterfront nightclub in southwest Washington, the Kerry campaign assembled for a final evening of drinking. To everyone's surprise, John Kerry himself flew down from Boston to attend the festivities. Trying to buck up his demoralized troops, the ex-candidate gave a short speech about how much his team had accomplished. "People are going to try to rewrite history and say we didn't have a message in this campaign," Kerry told his staff, according to one Democratic strategist. "And, let me tell you, the message never changed. The message we had in the final days of the campaign was the same as the one we had in the primaries." That was news to some of the boozy Kerry revelers. "Everyone in that room was on edge because everyone wanted to know: What was that message?" says the strategist. It's that time again for Democrats. Kerry aides and party strategists have thrown themselves into their quadrennial post-campaign ritual of recriminations. Old scabs are being picked. Scores are being settled. Clintonites point fingers at the Kennedy wing. Longtime Kerry aides throw accusations of disloyalty at the Clintonites. Staffers from the Democratic National Committee lob bombs at staffers from the campaign. Policy wonks gripe about inept political consultants. Kerry aides who traveled on the campaign plane snipe at the aides who were based in Washington. Democrats, out of power and out of jobs, are doing what they do best: turning on one another. The largest caucus of recriminators, one that spans ideological boundaries and includes critics from every corner of the party, argues that Kerry failed to offer a compelling message. As Kerry seemed to realize in his speech Saturday night, the no-message critique is congealing into conventional wisdom. I heard it in every conceivable permutation from almost everyone I interviewed. "I don't know that we ever knew what it was we were saying about George W. Bush," says one senior member of the team, whose job it was to come up with a message about Bush. It was a problem that plagued the campaign as soon as they stumbled, penniless, from the primaries into the general election. "When we got into the general, nobody knew how to go against Bush," says a senior campaign official. "[Senior adviser Bob] Shrum and [pollster Mark] Mellman built this strategy against Bush, 'Stronger at home, respected in the world.' What does that mean? We never even had strategy memos." By the fall, things were no better. "If there was a clear message in September about why you elect Kerry and defeat Bush, most of the people in the campaign were unaware of it," says one senior strategist hired late in the campaign. The lack of message clarity hurt morale and sapped support for Kerry among his own people. "One thing I would always tell people is that I don't know shit about John Kerry," says a campaign official. "I had an opportunity to work on his campaign last December and I said, 'Well, I don't really know that guy.' I still don't. I don't know what he stood for, other than an alternative to George Bush." That Kerry lacked a clear message isn't just a convenient postelection critique. It was a mantra during the campaign. Says a junior staffer, "I remember one day [Joe] Lockhart saying, after watching the evening news, 'We have no message.'" It didn't help that the Bush team was extremely effective in pushing its own message. "I don't think we ever came up with a frame to define Bush in the way they did with Kerry," says a senior official. "They woke up every day and said, 'We're going to call John Kerry a flip-flopper.' We did not wake up every day and call Bush 'X.' We never gave voters a positive reason to vote for Kerry." The lack of message was made worse by the failure to articulate a compelling narrative. "People had a story about George Bush," says a senior Kerry adviser. "The story was he was the accidental president who was transformed by 9/11 into a strong and serious leader. That kind of story matters to people." Instead of a story, aides confess, the Kerry campaign had a laundry list of policy proposals, or, in the words of James Carville, a litany rather than a narrative. "The human mind revolves around a story," says Carville. "Churches have litanies. Religions have a narrative.... It's the way we think. But we're selling a set of issue positions. The same thing always comes back: People always like our positions on the issues, and we always lose." Aides complain that the litany of issues filled the message vacuum. Inside the campaign, the message was known as jhos (pronounced "jay-hose"), which stood for jobs, health care, oil, and security. "jhos," says a senior policy adviser, despondently. "That was our message. It was jhos. That was literally our message. And, by the way, someone made millions of dollars to come up with that." That someone would be the political consulting firm Shrum, Devine, and Donilon, which is now receiving the brunt of criticism from demoralized staffers. The problem, aides say, is the lack of imagination Shrum and his colleagues exhibited. One common complaint is that they were slaves to polling data and used the research in a ridiculously literal way. Says a senior aide, "When you ask people, 'What is the most important issue?' and they say prescription drugs, [the consultants] say, 'Well, if we run on prescription drugs, we'll win.'" One aide repeatedly pressed Kerry to give a speech about welfare reform, since he had voted for Bill Clinton's bill in 1996. The idea was rebuffed because welfare didn't show up in polling as a key issue for voters. "It's never going to be the top issue," the aide complains. "If you call me on the phone, I'm not going to say that. But, if I hear you talk about welfare reform, it tells me something about your underlying character." There seemed to be an insurmountable gulf between the consultants, at their best running issue-based Senate campaigns, and the other staffers, who pressed for Kerry to explain the values he would bring to office rather than just his specific proposals. "Things became increasingly programmatic rather than values-based," says a senior adviser. "We were talking more and more about the specifics of our plan rather than the principles John Kerry would bring to bear in making those decisions." Shrum, who has a fine record of electing Democratic senators from blue states but who has now worked on eight losing presidential campaigns, is getting blamed the most for this strategy. Even after the loss, he seemed stuck on jhos. "I think partly or primarily because of events, the case Kerry was making on health care, the economy, and energy was not heard as clearly as it could have been or should have been," he told me before flying off to Tuscany for vacation. When another reporter asked Shrum what he thought the best TV ad of the campaign was, he said, "I think the 527 ads in the spring on prescription drugs were pretty effective." In addition to jhos, Shrum is also taking a beating for the decision not to attack Bush. The swing voters in the focus groups said they didn't want to see attack ads, so the campaign dutifully obeyed. "There was a belief within the campaign that you did not need, fundamentally, to raise these questions about Bush," says one of the architects of the campaign's strategy. "It was much more about John Kerry and filling in the picture on John Kerry and making him an acceptable alternative." One of Kerry's closest aides says, "I absolutely think the lack of negative campaigning killed us." Aides argue that the absence of a negative case against Bush led directly to the absence of a coherent message overall. "The whole strategy was based on polling," says one of Kerry's senior advisers. "Mark Mellman always focused on swing voters. You've got to start making the case for change, but we were never allowed to do that because it scared the swing voters." Another strategic choice now being second-guessed is the decision to make the race simply a referendum on the incumbent. Inside the campaign, it was taken for granted that the voters would ultimately make a decision about Bush's record in office. If that were the case, the all-knowing polls confirmed, Bush wouldn't win. After all, a majority of voters consistently told pollsters the country was on the wrong track. "They were going to run a campaign on reassurance," says a former Kerry aide. "People wanted to get rid of Bush, so they thought clearing the hurdle was enough. They didn't want to do anything bolder." Carville agrees that their plan was to play it safe: "They thought they could win it by reassurance." In the analysis of Stanley Greenberg, who was added to the campaign's roster of pollsters in the final weeks, Kerry's problem was that voters didn't view the choice the way the campaign had predicted. Bush's emphasis on his own character and values successfully shifted the debate away from his actual record. "It became a vote on whether you agreed with [Bush's] worldview rather than his competence," says Greenberg. On the other hand, even Shrum's fiercest critics give him credit for his work prepping Kerry for the debates, which momentarily saved the campaign when it was near death. Shrum had anticipated and prepared Kerry for every question he received. "There wasn't a single question from the three debates that I hadn't heard," says one campaign official. Adds a top Kerry aide, "I think he redeemed himself with debate prep. But that's it." As he jumped into a cab before heading off for Italy, Shrum seemed philosophical about the criticism, telling me, "I'm not in the mood to be terribly defensive about myself. The truth of the matter is, the reality speaks for itself. I was there. What I did, I did." That's not enough for most Democrats. "Nobody should put Shrum, Devine, Donilon in charge of another presidential campaign," says a senior Kerry official. "There should be a three-strikes-and-you're-out rule, and there should definitely be a seven-strikes-and-you're-out rule." Says a senior Democratic strategist who worked on the campaign, "The one thing that Clinton didn't have, and the one thing that both [Al] Gore and Kerry had, was Bob Shrum." In the spring, when reporters wrote profiles of Shrum, they could expect an unsolicited phone call from his good friend and partner James Carville, who would rebut criticism of Shrum. By the fall, Carville himself was so angry at the way the Kerry campaign was being run, and Shrum was so hurt by Carville's criticisms, that the two men were barely speaking. There are lots of other complaints circulating among Democrats. Stephanie Cutter, the communications director who was savaged in Newsweek's insider account of the campaign, has, like Shrum, become a lightning rod for Democratic blame. The most frequent complaint is that she took on too much responsibility and was slow to bring in additional talent. But, like so much else, the lack of message also helps explain the criticism of Cutter. "I don't disagree with the characterization of Stephanie Cutter being in over her head and not getting the best people around her," says one senior Kerry adviser, "but she probably took a little too much blame. She asked the consultants for months, 'What's our frame against this guy?' and never got an answer." Another senior Democratic official who actually clashed with Cutter explains, "She was given an impossible set of jobs, any one of which she would have done extremely well. ... You can't do all those jobs yourself. She was titularly responsible for the fact that we had no rapid-response operation. She was not at all responsible for the fact the campaign had no message." Cutter's critics say she made it hard for the campaign to bring aboard desperately needed talent in August. Her defenders say that she reached out to various Clinton-era big shots, but they rebuffed her because they were loath to leave their well-paid consulting jobs. Whatever the case, once the Clintonites did take over at the end of the campaign--a change known simply as "the coup" to Kerry aides--the staff rivalries became more poisonous. Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager the Clintonites wanted fired, was, not unreasonably, wary of the new regime. (She warned Cutter that Lockhart would "eat her alive.") In private, Teresa Heinz Kerry railed about the Clinton coup, suspicious of their motives. But at least the newcomers got results. John Sasso, one of the only late additions not from the Clinton White House, fixed the plane, and Lockhart fixed the Washington headquarters by bringing in adult supervision, but not without bruising egos. "Sasso came up and imposed order and cleaned shit up," says one Kerry aide who traveled on the plane. "He wasn't there to stroke you or make you feel good. The boss respected him and listened to him. He was just such a fucking dick at first. He wasn't like, 'Hello, you have done such a great job.' It was 'What the fuck is this? I'm here to clean up, not to make friends.'" It was a similar story with Lockhart, who sometimes roamed the downtown Washington headquarters twirling a baseball bat. "[Lockhart is] like a bear," says a senior Kerry aide. "He pissed a lot of people off. He made some people who had been there a long time seem worthless. But it was only two months left." But, for all the staff intrigue and leaking and counter-leaking among Kerry's aides, perhaps the most honest recrimination is that, in the end, it was Kerry's fault. He didn't inspire intense enthusiasm, even among many of his own employees. "The weird revolving cast of characters at the top was unhelpful," says a Kerry aide. "But people, ultimately, weren't that excited about the candidate." And most of Kerry's gaffes had nothing to do with his staff. It wasn't their fault that he couldn't get his story straight on Iraq or that he wore funny outfits when he went bicycling. "I don't imagine they recommended to him that he go windsurfing," says a senior adviser. "And it wasn't Bob Shrum or Stephanie Cutter or anyone else who said, 'I actually did vote for the eighty-seven billion dollars, before I voted against it.'" It was John Kerry. Ryan Lizza is a senior editor at TNR. I think Kerry's message was "I have a plan" (never spelled out) and "I can do it smarter than Bush can."