October 17, 2004

Shrum versus Mehlman.

Once again, neither candidate is on "Meet the Press." I suppose they just can't risk it. So I resign myself to watching Ken Mehlman (Bush's campaign manager) and Bob Shrum (Kerry's chief campaign strategist) wielding their powers, getting the message across. Tim Russert is my favorite TV news interviewer. (I also really like Chris Matthews, whose "Fox News Sunday," I may TiVo-blog later.) [UPDATE: I mean Chris Wallace! Sorry.]

Russert puts up his first graphic: all the recent polls showing Bush pulling back ahead. (This was before the devastating new Gallup poll.)

Shrum? Oh, he says just what you'd expect: there are actually other polls showing Kerry ahead, and then there are the internals. Roll out the conventional wisdom: a President can't get reelected if his approval rating is below 50%. Yawn! Of course, Shrum has to say that.

Mehlman? Well, what do you expect him to say? The polls show how much people like Bush and don't like Kerry!

Next question: what are the key issues in the campaign? Shrum reels out a bunch of things (like health care coverage) and then slows down to deliver this big shock: "this extraordinary statement in the New York Times Magazine this morning, that as soon as he's inaugurated, the President wants to rush to--and this is his word--privatize Social Security." (Interestingly enough, Joe Lockhart, on "Fox News Sunday," expressed shock at this proposal, which he portrayed as some sort of invidious secret plan.)

Shrum and Mehlman go back and forth about Social Security policy, and Shrum annoyingly tries to dominate by interrupting and talking over Mehlman, and even resorting to chanting "finish! finish! finish!" while Mehlman is trying to make his point (even though Shrum had already talked longer than Mehlman). Shrum was bright red when this discussion began and now he seems to have entirely lost his cool. He keeps banging his hands--and his giant round cufflinks--on the table. Mehlman's smiling. He's got the polls, why shouldn't he be calm and collected? Shrum speaks again, uninterrupted, then as soon as Mehlman begins his response, he's back to interrupting. One thing I love about Mehlman is that he never wastes any time saying "let me finish" and "I didn't interrupt you, now don't interrupt me"; he just gets his points in and lets Shrum look like a jackass.

Russert asks about Iraq, and here Shrum's whole response is about how Osama bin Laden attacked us and Iraq is a distraction. Mehlman, who has just emphasized the importance of seeing the Iraq conflict through to success, now takes the opportunity to say "Tim, you heard something here: it's called a pre-9/11 worldview, the notion that America should just respond when we're attacked." If Kerry cares at all about Iraq, Shrum disserved him terribly here. This is the determinative issue for me, and Shrum gave me absolutely zero.

New video clip: "We're all God's children, Bob." Yes, it's Kerry smarmily allying himself with God as he gratuitously drags the Vice President's daughter's private life into the policy debate. I'm struck, as I was when I first heard the third debate, by the way Kerry pauses and lowers his voice before he says "a lesbian" (in the sentence, "I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter ... who is ... a lesbian"). I called that "creepy" when I simulblogged the debate. Was Kerry ashamed of himself for saying it? Was he trying to make some listeners feel that being a lesbian is a bad thing, even though, of course, he wasn't saying it was? I get the feeling Kerry was deciding to go for some perceived political advantage here, even though it's not the sort of thing he would normally bring up. He doesn't even talk about his own private feelings. How weird for him to talk about someone else's sexual feelings!

Should Kerry apologize? Shrum: no ... and Kerry won all three debates. And people have attacked Kerry's war record! And Kerry wants to do something about health care!

Next clip: Cheney, asked by a citizen to say what he personally thinks of gay marriage, talks about his gay daughter. Question to Mehlman: if Cheney himself talks about his daughter's sexuality, why can't Kerry? Mehlman: it's wrong to use the Vice President's daughter to make a political point. Shrum, heated up, knocking a cufflink onto the desk repeatedly, re-asks Russert's question, then asserts that because Bush lost the debate so badly, the Republican spinners picked this bogus issue because it was all they could come up with.

Amazing how easy it was to use that one thing--quite successfully--to overshadow Kerry's big (supposed) victory in that debate, isn't it? Look at those poll numbers! Kerry used the debates to pull himself back into the running, and now the debates are over, and precious days are being lost over Kerry's foolish misstep, which his people have decided to dig in and defend as just something really kind and sympathetic that Kerry was nice enough to say. (I'm sure Mary Cheney is sitting around thinking: isn't he a lovely man for caring so much about me?)

Mehlman uses Kerry's minor misstep to paint a big picture:
Remember the famous Dean scream? The famous Dean scream was seen as relevant because it was a window into something that people thought was bigger. And I think what you saw with John Kerry, when he brought that point up in the debate: it was part of a larger pattern here, a pattern of someone who is literally willing to say anything in order to win."
Mehlman then connects the remark about Cheney's daughter to Edwards's statement that if Kerry is elected people like Christopher Reeve will walk again and Kerry's warning that Bush will bring back the draft. The point is: these people will say anything to get elected. Shrum, ever ready to interrupt, grumbles "he has to finish his prepared speech"--as if Shrum's remarks are all off the cuff. (Did I mention Shrum is wearing the largest cufflinks in the history of the world?)

A few questions later, Russert shows the clip from the debate in which Bush says "Gosh, I don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden" and then the two embarrassing clips from 2002 of Bush saying that he's "not that concerned" about Osama bin Laden. Mehlman just emphasizes the successes against al Qaeda. Shrum complains about various failures in Afghanistan--how could Bush have failed to wipe out opium!--and ends with what he thinks is a big kicker: "Bush keeps talking about the schools he's opened and the fact that women voted in Afghanistan. Well, I think that's good, but I wish the President would care about women's rights and education in this country as much as he does in Afghanistan."

Finally, Russert asks Mehlman to explain the bulge in Bush's jacket. Mehlman makes a couple jokes, and still doesn't explain it. Why don't they just explain it? Is it some kind of trick to get Bush's opponents to waste their time on something that has no significance?

All in all, an excellent confrontation. I think Mehlman clearly got the better of Shrum, in both style and substance. But maybe people who really want Kerry to win will find a way to convince themselves that Shrum and his cufflinks really mopped the floor with Mehlman.

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