True Confessions From the Trail

By Dana Milbank
Friday, April 24, 2009

NEWARK, Del. Steve Schmidt, the McCain campaign's top operative, came back to his alma mater here Thursday night to relive last year with his Democratic counterpart, fellow University of Delaware alum David Plouffe. The clear fluid in the pitcher between them looked like water -- but it seemed to have the effect of truth serum.

"When Lehman Brothers collapsed in the fall, I knew pretty much straight away the campaign was finished," Schmidt confessed to an auditorium full of college students. When the number of people who thought the country was on the right track "dropped to 5 percent and the economy collapsed, I knew that was not going to be survivable for us."

The confessions were just beginning.

On the Bush-Cheney drag: "The first night of our convention was President Bush and Vice President Cheney. I literally thought by the second night of our convention we could be down 25 points."

On Katie Couric's interview of Sarah Palin: "That is one of the two most consequential interviews that a candidate for national office has given, in a negative way, the other being Roger Mudd's interview of Ted Kennedy . . . when he couldn't answer the question of why he wanted to be president."

On McCain's acceptance of inevitable defeat: "I was waiting for his bus to crash into a CDC truck carrying bubonic plague to release over Cincinnati and Ohio. It was just one thing after another, you know, and never to our benefit."

On the Republican Party: "It is near-extinct in many ways in the Northeast, it is extinct in many ways on the West Coast, and it is endangered in the Mountain West, increasingly endangered in the Southwest . . . and if you look at the state of the party, it is a shrinking entity."

Plouffe, though much more guarded than his former foe, took a quaff of the truth serum, too. All that talk from President Obama about working with the Republicans? Stuff and nonsense! "I think the scoreboard of how many House Republicans voted for a certain bill is a flawed measure, because the truth is there's very few House Republicans that worry about the middle of the electorate anymore," the president's former campaign manager said.

"We've won all there is to win in the House, so these folks are worried about their primaries, and Newt Gingrich is calling all their shots and pulling out the dusty playbook from 1994 and saying, 'Just oppose the president, and maybe if things don't go well you'll profit.' "

The gathering was part of an honored custom in American politics: After ripping each other's lungs out during a campaign, the operatives like to get together for a friendly postmortem. The most famous case, of course, is the Matalin-Carville union, but lesser bonds are formed after each election at Harvard's Kennedy School. This session, perhaps because it was held after the passions of the campaign subsided, proved surprisingly candid.

The university did its best to tout its status, bestowed by a Bloomberg News reporter, as "the epicenter of politics" because both Plouffe and Schmidt attended school here, even if neither graduated (Schmidt is still working on his last three credits). The university president and the moderator mentioned the "epicenter" quote four times in their introductions.

Both politicos, in calm reflection, told the 400 students what they had refused to acknowledge last fall: that they both knew months before Election Day that Obama had it locked up.

"Our strategic challenge," Schmidt said, was "the equivalent of throwing a football through a tire at 50 yards: It's doable theoretically, but it is very difficult and it needs a little bit of luck."

Plouffe readily agreed. "There's no doubt," he said, "the football-through-the-tire analogy is the right one."

Schmidt spoke openly of McCain's reluctant choice of Palin after hopes of running with former Democrat Joe Lieberman were scuttled by the right, which threatened a convention floor fight. "That would have had the effect of blowing up the Republican Party," he said, "and when you look at all the challenges we had during the 2008 election cycle, blowing up the party wasn't one of the menu items of things that were going to improve our situation."

Schmidt expanded on his earlier support for same-sex civil unions ("I believe people are born with their sexuality"), joked about the GOP leadership vacuum ("this 'Lord of the Flies' period"), mocked the party's presidential strategy ("Hold the South and we'll spend $80 million trying to flip Ohio") and celebrated Obama's "once-in-a-generation" political skills ("This was, in my view, the unfinished Bobby Kennedy campaign").

He willingly accepted responsibility for denying Palin the right to speak on election night, because "if you lose, the concession speech is a singular moment" that "acknowledges the legitimacy of the victory and refreshes, if you will, the constitutional order."

Whatever that fluid was on the stage, the Obama administration may want to bottle it. Schmidt even tossed the president laurels for his first months in office. "As a political proposition, his first 100 days have been successful," he said. "His approval rating is in the 60s, there has been dramatic improvement in the 'right track' number, he's had success . . . at passing legislation, and the Republican Party as a matter of reality in the first 100 days has not done anything to improve its political condition."

The confessions done, Schmidt and Plouffe walked together to the back of the auditorium -- up the left aisle. "He converted me," Schmidt explained.

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