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My Conversation with Robert Shrum on Life and Politics
Joseph Solomita - NYU Class of 2014
La Pietra Dialogues
May 6, 2013

Former Democratic campaign strategist and political consultant Robert Shrum has spent the last couple of months on the NYU Florence campus running a lecture series entitled U.S. Elections 1960-2012: Looking Back.  I have had the privilege of sitting in on these workshops and learning how campaigns really work from an insider’s perspective.  Shrum opened up the series by dissecting the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, an election that took place when Shrum himself was a student in college.  By integrating clips of the first ever televised debate, the intimate gathering of students had the unique opportunity to experience this monumental event that took place 30 years before any of them were born.  

Shrum then jumped ahead 20 years to the 1980 presidential election between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and former governor Ronald Reagan.  Before delving into the general election, Shrum spent significant time breaking down the Democratic Primaries, where he served as head speechwriter for senator Edward Kennedy’s campaign.  Students were given the gift of watching one of the most famous political speeches of all time (Ted Kennedy’s 1980 Democratic National Convention speech) and then picking the brain of the man who wrote it. Shrum was honest, candid and forthcoming as he reflected on what could have been. 

The final two lectures in the series focused on elections students in the audience remember very well.  Shrum interpreted the 2008 and 2012 general elections in which President Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain and former Governor Mitt Romney.  This was an interesting decision because not only were they the two most recent presidential elections, they were also the first two elections in the past 30 years that Mr. Shrum has not worked on.  Upon conclusion of his lecture series, I had the prerogative of sitting down with Mr. Shrum and reflecting on both the lecture series and his career, as well as looking ahead to what’s to come in American politics.  It was an opportunity I will never forget.  

Amidst NYU’s gorgeous 52-acre Florence campus, sequestered in the vast gardens behind the breathtaking Villa La Pietra, Mr. Shrum and I sat on a stone bench and spoke for a little over a half hour.  With not another student in sight, all that could be heard over the sound of our voices were the splashes of water from the adjacent waterfall. Although I prepared tactical list of questions, our interview quickly transitioned into a conversation.  Sitting right beside me was one of the most successful political consultants in the history of American politics, that I had the honor of meeting a few short times just two months ago, yet if anyone passed by, we could have been confused for lifelong acquaintances.  I cannot thank Mr. Shrum enough for being so accessible to us students.  In a time of political gridlock, scandal and uncertainty, it is refreshing to know there are still leaders out there that care so much about the course of our country.  

 

What advice do you have for students looking to enter the field of politics?

Well, its always tough and uncertain, there is no sure road to a set goal in politics but it is certainly easy to get involved. You can go out and work for a candidate or a campaign.  If people want to write they should spend a lot of time studying history and reading famous speeches that have had major impacts.  You have to understand that if you´re going to go into politics, every two years it is going to break your heart.  You have to be there not just for career reasons but for things you care deeply about.  

 

How did you get started in politics?

I´ve always loved politics.  I worked for Pierre Salinger at the 1960 Democratic Convention, where I was lucky enough to meet President Kennedy, then Senator Kennedy.  I went to college and was very involved in college debate, and then I went to Harvard Law School. After I was out of Harvard law school the one thing I knew I didn’t want to do was practice law, so I was the debate coach at Boston College for about two years.  Midway through the second year, my friend Laurence Tribe, who is one of the great professors of constitutional law and American history, teaches at Harvard and also had been deeply involved in college debate, took me aside and told me I needed to do something else with my life.  He was not denigrating college debate but he told me I needed to move beyond it. I couldn’t denigrate it because it was a critical part of my education.  He wrote letters to people he knew who worked for John Lindsey who was then Mayor of New York and Senator Edward Kennedy. Although I would ultimately spend a very long part of my life either directly working for Senator Kennedy or as a consultant, my first job was speech writing for John Lindsey. I was basically a kid.

 

Are there any speeches in particular that have impacted your life and you believe students should read up on?

Lincoln’s second inaugural address, Roosevelt´s first and second inaugural addresses and his acceptance speech in 1936 at Franklin Field in Philadelphia, John F. Kennedy´s inaugural address which along with Lincoln’s and FDR’s is one of the three really great state papers among inaugural addresses in American history.  Kennedy´s speech on the test ban treaty. Several of Robert Kennedy’s speeches, especially in South Africa.  A number of speeches from Ted Kennedy, I am loath to recommend since I participated in writing many of them. Reagan, Churchill, the list goes on and on.  There are some speeches from President Obama that I think people ought to listen to because there has been a transition from a kind of high Churchillian rhetoric to a more casual but nonetheless eloquent rhetoric that you can see in Obama and sometimes see in Bill Clinton.

 

I want to backtrack to the Edward Kennedy 1960 Democratic National Convention speech that you helped write.  Looking back, do you think that speech ended up helping Reagan more than Carter?

Carter was going to lose anyway.  He was going to lose because of the economy, he was going to lose because of the hostage crises, which he had used as a crutch in the primaries to avoid debating. This had now turned against him because people were saying the President was apparently working on the hostage crises, but the hostages were still out there.  The Democratic Party was fundamentally without purpose or much definition, aside from just dumping on Reagan.  So no, I think Kennedy´s speech, actually, if you watch it and other elements of the conventions, it gave, at least for a moment, some life and some hope to the Democratic Party.  Now did it lead people in the hall to say we´re probably nominating the wrong guy? Yeah, but i think that was kind of a natural outcome.  Carter had ducked debates all through the primaries and it was inevitable at some point that Kennedy was going to get a chance to be seen and heard in a way that he hadn’t been through the whole campaign, especially because he did so well at the end of the primaries. So no, I don´t have any regrets about it and I think if you read the speech, it is as relevant to what Obama is doing today as to what Kennedy thought the Democratic Party should be doing in 1980.   

 

Would you consider that to be one of the toughest losses of your career?

Well it was so quick and coming, you know, we slogged through defeat in Iowa and defeat in New Hampshire, in both we had big leads before the hostage crises.  They said we were defeated in Maine, but we won the Maine caucuses, it just took them many weeks to count all the votes.  It really wasn´t until we got to the New York and Connecticut primaries that things really picked up.  It was hard to lose but it really was, as Kennedy said in that speech, a happy campaign.  We ran out of money but people refused to stop working, they worked for free and strongly believed in what they were working for.  I think Kennedy would have been an absolutely extraordinary president and would have turned the country in the 80s in a completely different direction. In fact, If Gerald Ford had been re-elected in 1976 I think you would have seen the same kind of reaction you saw to Carter as gas prices mounted and inflation went out of control. However, the solution would have been to move in a progressive direction and that would have been Kennedy in 1980.

Certainly the defeat of Al Gore in 2000 was painful and heartbreaking.  First of all because I believe he wasn´t defeated, he was elected just not inaugurated when the Supreme Court decided to act like a ward committee. Secondly, because it really proves elections have consequences.  I think there would have been no Iraq War if Gore had been elected president.  I think we probably would have been in and out of Afghanistan with very major force much faster.  There would have been no 10, 11, 12 year war and there wouldn´t have been the kind of tax cuts that created this vast deficit and the kind of unfunded Medicare prescription that compounded it. Gore was the person pushing for a prescription drug benefit, but it was funded.

 

How do you go about dealing with losses such as that, knowing how much money and time were invested in the campaigns and most importantly knowing the repercussions those results have had on our country?

Well you think of all the people who have invested so much, tens of millions of people who voted for the candidate, hundreds of thousands of people who have volunteered, given money, given their hearts and it´s tough, but you´re a professional and you need to behave like a professional. The question in 2000 after the Supreme court decision came down was how to make sure Vice President Gore got out of it in a way that was good for him and good for the country.  Same thing happened in 2004 with John Kerry, when all the exit polls on election day said we were going to win and the results came in that night and we didn´t.  I still think the long lines in Ohio made a massive contribution to that and I think there was massive voter suppression in Ohio, but we probably won´t know the details of that for many years to come.  You just have to be professional about it, you have to do the right thing for your candidate, for your party and for your country.  

It was so funny in Faneuil Hall after Kerry conceded, so many people who had been involved in the campaign had disappeared and there were a lot of camera crews in the back so I said oh hell I´ll go do the interviews because I thought somebody needed to speak for him and for the campaign.  When I was done with the interviews I got in the car, my wife and I drove down to Cape Cod where we then had a house and I decompressed for a week or two.

 

So you think not letting the losses stick with you is the most important thing to do?

Oh, it sticks with you always.  Take the candidate, Walter Mondale who lost 49 states once asked George McGovern, for whom I very proudly worked for in 1972, who also lost 49 states, “George, when do you get over the defeat?" and McGovern said "Fritz. Never." So, you know, I think it´s tougher for the candidate than anyone else and the consequences for the country can be extraordinary but you have to move on with your life.  In 1972, when I was a speechwriter for McGovern, I don´t suppose I need to accept responsibility for that defeat, but I was much prouder to be on his side then Richard Nixon´s.  As Walter Cronkite was awarding state after state to Nixon and Senator McGovern was shaving, his traveling aid Jeff Smith was crying and McGovern looked at him and said, "Jeff, Jeff it´s alright, we´ll all get up tomorrow, we´ll all go on, we´ll live our lives, we´ll do something useful.  We´ll get up tomorrow and we´ll live our lives," to which Jeff replied "That´s easy for you to say." In actuality that is hard for the candidate to say, but what you do is just that, you get up and live your life and if it is about something more than personal ambition and the job you wanted or the place you aspired to or the fact that you wanted a White House pass, if it is about something more, then of course you have a lot of reasons to go on and contribute towards making a difference.  

 

Are you a supporter of the Electoral College?

Well I think that´s an irrelevant question because I don´t think it is ever going to change.  Look, I think it would be best if we elected presidents by popular vote, it would nationalize campaigns, in other words there would be no red states, no blue states, people would have to campaign everywhere to maximize their vote. However, you can´t do that without also nationalizing the system of electing the president, that is, a standard federal registration system for presidential voting, a standard ballot, a standard early vote, a standard mail vote, a certainty that you can prevent any and all forms of voter suppression and then a standard system for counting so you can´t have a repeat of what went on in Florida in 2000.

 

So you still believe voter suppression is a major issue?

Oh I think voter suppression is a principle Republican aim right now because they can´t yet adapt.  I mean there are smart people in the Republican party who know they have to adapt to the new American electorate but there are a lot of people who are not prepared to do that.  They can´t support immigration reform, the Republican National Committee is meeting in Los Angeles in the next several days and they’re going to vote on another resolution condemning marriage equality, they might write a report saying they get it and they have to move in the future but they are still stuck in the past.  One way they can try to win is to prevent people from voting at all, another way is to change the Electoral College at the state level, and I guess Pennsylvania is still considering this.  You would award electoral votes by congressional district instead of on a statewide basis and in Pennsylvania, which is heavily gerrymandered, I think that means Romney would have gotten more electoral votes than Obama did even though Obama carried the state. I think Obama would have gotten only 7 or 8 of them.

 

In your opinion, is there a chance the Republicans adapt to the electorate by 2016?

I think it´s tough by 2016, just look at someone like Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey, who is certainly more competitive than the kind of people the Republican Party has been nominating recently for president.  He is now committed the hierarchy of doing his job during hurricane Katrina, of criticizing some Republicans who didn´t want to vote for the relief funds, of looking a little too moderate on some social issues, although I happen to believe he is pretty conservative, and now he can’t even get invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference. Just imagine the first debate in Iowa in 2016 if the Republicans don´t manage to create a system of regional primaries.  First question will be “How many of you think marriage is only between a man and a women?” and they´ll all raise their hands because otherwise they won´t get the vote of the Christian right or they’ll go the way of Jon Huntsman and not get any votes at all. Then the second question will be “Would you defund Planned Parenthood?” and they’ll all continue to say “yes” as they go down a checklist of issues that alienate voters and make it very hard to win a general election.

 

Do you think this could lead to them losing the House and falling further behind in the Senate in 2014?

The House in 2014- that is tough.  We may have a pause election in 2014 because unless the new American electorate that turned out in 2008 and 2012 turns out, you could have something closer to 2010.  I don’t think it will be as bad as 2010 for Democrats but I think it could happen, the electorate could be much older and much more conservative. One of the things I think is a challenge for President Obama and Organizing for America is to really run the kind of voter turnout operation in the midterms that they have ran in their general elections.  If they succeed it will be history making.

 

What do you predict will be the biggest change between the 2012 general election and looking forward to the 2016 general election?  

I think the elections will be fundamentally the same. I think Hillary Clinton, if she runs, will be the Democratic nominee. I think she is very difficult to defeat and I just don´t think the Republicans will nominate someone who will do very well against her. Even the people they have who could be competitive like Christie will have a very hard time getting the nomination.  I also think women in the United States think the time has come and so do a lot of men. Hillary Clinton is a different person then she was in 2008, she has been Secretary of State, she has earned it, she deserves it and as long as she doesn´t run on that basis she will be fine. She cannot just say ‘I earned it, so I deserve it,’ she has to go out there and say ‘Here is what I want to do for the country.’

 

Any fears that nominating Clinton would be making the same mistake Republicans have recently made in electing the runner-up from the previous round of primaries?  

Well my friend David Frum wrote a piece that I wrote an answer to in the Daily Beast saying Democrats are in danger of nominating the next person in line, which Republicans always do.  Well you know the next person in line for the Republicans in 1980 was a guy named Ronald Reagan and he was not exactly a mistake as a nominee. John F. Kennedy hadn´t run for the nomination in 1956 but he emerged from the ´56 convention as the most popular person in the Democratic Party and led every presidential preference poll for four years. There is, by the way, no obvious Republican that is next in line, unless it´s Jeb Bush but he is running third or fourth in Republican preference polls.

 

Do you believe social media will continue to play an exponential role in campaigns and elections?

I think social media is having as revolutionary an impact on campaigns and elections as the coming of television advertising did in 1952 and in 1968 and ´72 when it exploded and became the dominate force in political campaigns.  It was of course always one-way communication, it had the advantage before remote controls and mute buttons so it was what I call passive communication because the only way you could avoid it would be to stand up, walk across the room and change the channel. Beyond that, social media lets you target your voters at a very granular level, it pushes us toward base elections, toward maximizing our base and our turnout.  It is not all good, I am all for the democratization effects it has, I especially welcome the fact that it´s democratized the funding of at least presidential campaigns.  Obama could raise a huge amount of money on the Internet that could counter the impact of big donors.  An explosion of communication channels also accompanies it so that now we don’t have a common base of knowledge left in our politics anymore.  Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, "Everybody is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts," well today you are entitled to your own facts- just turn on Fox.

 

Do you think social media could potentially increase voter turnout to European levels?

I think social media in both Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 has already increased voter turnout. There are a number of things we would have to do to continue the increase of voter turnout aside from social media.  Oregon is now considering a law that will automatically register people as voters that would increase turnout.  You are going to have to use social media and on ground mobilization to reach into minority communities where voting has sometime been at lower levels.  This is compounded by the way with Republican efforts that make sure they make it tough for those folks to vote.  We have to make it easier for people to vote but you also have to give people something to vote for.  It´s not just the media, it is still the message.

 

How much trust do you have in aggregated polls? What are your thought on the Nate Silver phenomenon?

Well it depends on what you want.  I think Nate Silver has shown if you aggregate some bad polls on each side, as well as good polls, it shows some polls are too bad to even be in the aggregation so you throw them out and it can give you a very good idea of where the horse race is going.  It´s not terribly helpful to campaigns because when I was involved in a presidential campaign, sure I wanted to know every morning where we stood, but I wanted to know how we could get to standing in a better place five days or a week later and what that requires is projective polling, polling where you lay out scenarios, where you test out different arguments and aggregation is never going to succeed in doing that.  

 

In your political career, what has personally been the most gratifying experience?

Being allowed to shape events, to some extent to bend history a little bit in a direction that I believe in and doing it with political leaders who in many cases I have come to admire.  Working with Senator Kennedy for so many years was an extraordinary privilege.  I still talk to John Kerry all of the time.  My dad was a tool and die maker, I grew up in Culver City, California, I never thought this would happen to me.

 

Looking back on your very successful career, do you have any major regrets?

Yeah, the Supreme Court decision in Gore v. Bush, and the Iran hostage crises because I think Kennedy would have been the nominee and I bet would have beaten Reagan in 1980.

 

So they were more of the things that were out of your control?

Oh, you mean did I make mistakes? Sure, we all make mistakes.  I think we should have responded more swiftly to the swift boat attack in 2004.  John Kerry thought we should respond immediately but we had made a mistake before that when we decided to take federal funding which meant we had a 13-week general election campaign and Bush had an eight-week election campaign with the same amount of money.  The implication was we would not spend money on television in August but we should have immediately thrown that implication out the window.  You always have regrets, you always say ‘Gee, I wish I would have done that differently,’ in fact, one of the things I thought was most astonishing about Bush in the debates in 2004 was when he couldn´t name a single mistake he had made in his first term.  I have made lots of them, you can find a bunch of them in my book if you want.

 
 
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