The Choice 2008
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Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle got to know Barack Obama during their 2004 Senate campaigns. After losing his election, many Daschle staffers went to work in Obama's office, including his former chief of staff. In 2006, Daschle advised Obama not to miss the window of opportunity in 2008 to make a run for the presidency. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted June 10, 2008.
Editor's Note: On Feb. 3, 2009, Daschle withdrew as Obama's nominee for secretary of health and human services after, as The New York Times put it, "problems over back taxes and potential conflicts of interest."

“I argued that windows of opportunity for running for the presidency close quickly. And that he shouldn't assume, if he passes up this window, that there will be another.”

Tom Daschle

When do you first meet Sen. Obama? What are your impressions of him?

I was majority leader when I had the opportunity to meet him the first time. They told me about this young state senator who was contemplating running for the United States Senate, and we arranged to meet in Chicago. I remember walking away thinking this was a self-assured, very articulate, very telegenic potential candidate, and I reported back that I thought he had a great deal of future politically.

I then saw him shortly after that, and I heard him speak, and I was extremely impressed by his speaking prowess and came back again to say, "I think we've got a winner here."

... Tell me about the 2004 Democratic convention speech ... and the way it was received.

More often than not, keynote speeches are not very well received. They're usually disappointing. For whatever reason, they just don't live up to the hype and expectation, and they can be devastating to a politician, because you make this speech, and you hope that it's going to be one of the pivotal moments in your political career, and something just doesn't happen.

Well, this was just the opposite. For Barack Obama, you had a young person who had never been on the national scene, not even elected to the United States Senate, a state senator and an African American who spoke in a way that just electrified the crowd.

I think, to a certain extent, it was low expectations. Nobody had ever heard of this guy before. He was there, some people thought, maybe because of the symbolism of an African American speaking at a national convention, and this was the future of our party and the country. ...

So he benefited in part from that, but it was really one of the most eloquent, most powerful speeches that anyone had heard at a convention in a long time. And, of course, he had great competition with Bill Clinton and other orators at that moment. So it was even all the more remarkable that he stood out, given the competition and his circumstances.

... How do you and other leaders in the Democratic Party see him? Is he the silver lining? Is he something that helps define a future at a point when the Democratic Party is in a bit of trouble?

... Of course, because he gave that remarkable speech, he came to the Senate almost immediately with everyone's high expectations, with everyone's assumption that this was a man who was on a fast track. We didn't know to where, but he was on a fast track, higher up the echelons of the party and national ranks.

... What about this guy makes him such an exceptional politician?

I hope it's not an overused term, but I believe that in many respects, Barack Obama is a transformational figure, much like the Kennedys. I was a very young man when the Kennedys became the dominant political figures on the scene. I was in high school and college, and I remember then how taken I was and how much of an influence and effect they had on my own decisions about life and what I wanted to do and my own philosophy.

I think Barack Obama is having that same effect on a new generation of young Americans, and Americans, really, perhaps of all ages. He has that quality, and in part it's his race, and part it's his eloquence, and part it's his positions; in part it's his nature; in part it's his life story. There are so many different parts to it, but he is without doubt a unique political figure that has had huge political resonance so far in his life. ...

... What is your relationship [after he wins the Senate election], and why did you take him under your arm, to some extent?

I think in part it just seemed to be a natural fit. We developed a friendship in the campaign. I had a very hard race; he had an easy race. He was able to help me, and as a result of that assistance we found ourselves working together on occasion.

When I then had to leave the Senate, he was looking for staff, and I had what I considered to be some of the best staff on the Hill. And as a result of my departure and his need for good staff, it was a natural opportunity for him to avail himself of some of the best staff on the Hill.

And many of them took up the opportunities presented, including my chief of staff. He had a hard time recruiting my chief of staff, whose name is Pete Rouse. He went to him to ask if he would take the job, and he was turned down. He asked if he'd take it for, I think it was a two-year period, and he turned it down. And he kept diminishing the time frame within which Pete would be asked to fill this role of chief of staff. I think it finally came down to a few months, and finally my chief of staff said yes, and he's still with him today.

... One of the things he seems to do ... is that he ties himself to powerful mentors. ... What does that say about his leadership?

I have to say I think it's really one of the most unspoken and most important things you can do in political life. I was advised to do that myself, and I had the good fortune over the time in my public life to have some remarkable mentors. And I have advised Barack that that is also a very important aspect of his future.

I don't think there's any doubt that he is a magnet for good talent, just because of his reputation and because of who he is. But I think it's also true that he seeks out people to whom and with whom he wants to affiliate. And I think that has been one of his strengths. He knows where to go for good advice and where to go for the kind of guidance you need as you maneuver these rocky shoals of political life, and he's done it very well.

In 2006 ... he talks to you about the possibility of running for the presidency. What do you tell him?

I tell him he should do it. We went to my favorite restaurant and took the kitchen table in the back where nobody could see us. We had a bottle of wine and a great meal and what was supposed to be a conversation that lasted about an hour I think went over three.

And during that time I told him that I thought his lack of Washington experience was one of his greatest assets. And I argued that windows of opportunity for running for the presidency close quickly. And that he shouldn't assume, if he passes up this window, that there will be another. I had that experience, and I wouldn't want him to see the same thing happen to him.

Why the 2008 window for Obama?

I think the window is important for a couple of reasons. One, it was an open opportunity -- that is, he wasn't running against an incumbent; and secondly, because the longer he's in Washington, the more history he has, and the more history he has, the more he's going to be explaining his votes and his actions and his statements and his positions that undermine his message. His message is one of change, his message is one of new direction, and it's harder to do that after you've been in Washington for a long time.

... The film is called The Choice 2008. When you look at these times and you look at these two men, what is the choice that the voters have before them?

I think the choice is between what is generally viewed to be a moderate Republican with tremendous experience versus a moderate Democrat with little experience but remarkable judgment. ...

But really it comes down to a generational change, a transformational change in our political scene. This may be the last time somebody in his 60s or 70s runs, at least for the foreseeable future. This will be the first time a new generation of political leaders will be at the national scene at that level, and we'll see a lot more of that generation in elections to come.

Let's switch over to McCain for a little bit. ... What was your view of McCain as a senator, your working relationship with him, the kind of guy he was, his reputation [for] anger and all that? How did you view him?

I have to say I'm very fond of John McCain, John and Cindy both. Linda and I, my wife and I, are fortunate to have had a good friendship with them, spent time at their home in Arizona.

There was a time when we came very close to convincing him to join our caucus back in 2001, not as a Democrat but as an independent. This was something he considered very carefully and chose not to do for a lot of reasons.

But I believe that he is a good man. He is not somebody with whom I share much of a philosophical similarity, but I believe that in his heart, he's very patriotic. He wants to do the right thing; he cares deeply about his country. And I can't fault him as a human being, as a United States senator. ... We all have our flaws, but I think that John McCain has many more strengths than flaws.

Is it surprising to you that he is the standard bearer for the Republican Party this year?

It is. I think it was a weak field to a certain extent, and I think he benefited from that. I also think that he is a very, very tenacious campaigner, and in the end, that tenacity, that persistence and the ability to be the last man standing worked to his credit. I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it did.

... What was his feeling [when he came back to the Senate after the 2000 presidential campaign]? And what do the positions that he took say about him?

At that point, I think he had made the decision that his future in the Republican Party was limited, that he didn't have the ability to ascend to the highest levels within the party or the country, and so he was going to take a more independent approach that reflected more, perhaps, his true philosophical positions on things. And so he came to us with that expectation, that perhaps he could serve more effectively as an independent aligned with our caucus than with theirs.

He was angry for the way he was treated. He was angry because his staff were not asked to be part of the new administration. He was angry because he thought George Bush was playing to the most conservative elements within his own party. And for all those reasons, he felt alienated, and as a result looked for a new home. I think that after [Vt. Sen.] Jim Jeffords made the switch and it became less important that he found a new home, he decided to tough it out in the Republican Party, and that's what he did.

You and Sen. [Ted] Kennedy [D-Mass.] sit down with him several times. Can you take us into those meetings a little bit and talk about what the conversation was?

It wasn't Sen. Kennedy; it was Sen. Reid. Sen. Harry Reid [D-Nev.] was my whip, and Harry and I spent a good deal of time talking to him about how he would handle committee assignments, the fact that he still held positions that were contrary to the majority, at least of those in our caucus. He was concerned about staffing and about how he might be viewed. But I think all things considered, he was excited at one point about the prospects of joining us. We talked at some length about the comfort level and how he'd be received and what he could expect. And we talked about personalities within the caucus. We had some very good conversations.

But of course now he says there was never any real possibility. Your impressions of the way the story has spun out over time?

Well, only he knows. He certainly left us with the impression that that possibility was a very real one, and I don't think we would have spent the time and made the effort we did had it not been perceived to be real and sincere and genuine. I have no reason to challenge his assertions now, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's a little political convenience there.

... How do you see that decision and how it's relevant to this election?

Actually, I think it's much more of a positive for him than he may acknowledge or recognize today. It may not have been a positive during the primary season because he had to show his true-blue Republican credentials, his conservative credentials.

Now it seems to me he needs to show his independence, his ability to separate himself from the Bush administration, and I can't think of an anecdote that does that more effectively than this story. So in some ways, it's a mixed blessing for him, but certainly much more of a blessing than he may publicly acknowledge. ...

You're invited to the Sedona ranch. By this time, is this a done deal, it's not going to happen? Or what was it, and what was the discussion when you went out to the ranch?

That's right. We had talked about getting together for a weekend sort of separate from this. It really wasn't meant to be the final round of negotiations as much as it was just an opportunity to socialize and to be together. But this is during the deliberations, and then when he made the decision, I remember coming to him on the floor, saying: "You may not want to do this now. You've decided what you're going to do." And I remember very clearly, he said something like: "Screw it, I think we should do it anyway. Let's just have a fun weekend, and it is what it is." So we came, and we did. We had a delightful weekend, and I think fondly of those days together. ...

We're going back to the primaries. The fact that [Sen.] Hillary [Clinton, D-N.Y.] and Obama are running against each other, what does that say about the Democratic Party in 2008?

I think it's really a remarkable moment in history that you'd have a woman who for the first time could ascend to the presidency and an African American and a Hispanic American, [N.M. Gov. Bill Richardson]. And so it was a heady time for Democrats. Democrats like to think of themselves as diverse and as disparate and just very full of big-tent ideas and people, and this probably set it with an exclamation point.

... How do you view [the nearly evenly split voting divide between the candidates] and what that means to the Obama campaign on what they have to do, how they have to deal with this issue of working-class white voters?

It's something the Obama campaign takes very, very seriously. One of the very first things that Barack Obama did after he got the nomination, after he won the nomination, before it was officially designated, was to go on a two-and-a-half week tour talking about nothing but the economy, talking to blue-collar voters and having blue-collar voters introduce him at every event all over the country. So there was a very clear message in that primary season.

Having said that, I also acknowledge that the Clintons were very, very formidable. And of all the aspects of their base, there is no stronger part of their base than blue-collar workers because they spent so much time directing their attention and their policies to blue-collar workers in the '90s.

The contrast now is not between a Hillary Clinton and a Barack Obama, it's between a John McCain and a Barack Obama. And our hope is that over the course of the last several months, we've been able to move that electorate and the excitement around the candidates and show the stark differences that exist between the two candidates to have won the allegiance and won the support and the enthusiasm of blue-collar workers.

The Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright controversy -- number one, why do you think that story had such legs? How damaging was it, and how integral is it to this need for the campaign to win over blue-collar voters?

... When somebody of his stature and his calling with that kind of a relationship with Barack Obama says the things that Rev. Wright said, it's going to draw attention to the candidate, given the scrutiny and the microscope under which candidates running for president have now had to endure. So it's no surprise that Rev. Wright's comments generated the attention. I'm just hopeful that given the actions that Barack Obama took following those comments, his remarkable speech on race, his very difficult decision to leave that particular church community, has made a significant difference and created the firewall that is so important politically.

And the speech that he made that this triggered, why [was it] so exceptional? ...

On its surface, the speech on race was simply an opportunity to articulate his view about race and about the election and about Rev. Wright. But it went much deeper than that because of its eloquence and because of its passion and because of its extraordinary resonance with typical American people. It was perceived to be one of the finest speeches on race that we had heard in any context on any other day. It's just a remarkable clarification of societal views about race today, articulated by an African American who could speak for us all. And I think he did it as powerfully and as eloquently as anyone could have possibly done.

... What about Obama's message [of change] resonated [with voters]?

First of all, I think that it's clear that the American people are very, very apprehensive about our circumstances today -- economically, militarily in Iraq, our circumstances around the world, the loss of standing. Most people think we're on the wrong track today, and I think what they are looking for is someone who can begin to put us on the right track. And it seems to me that the less time spent in Washington, the more credibility one has to make the case that "I'm the one to do that." Barack Obama had more standing in that context than Hillary Clinton did. ...

... When it came to the math, what happened was the Obama people turned their attention to the caucus states ... and understood that was the way to win early on. The Clinton campaign, for some reason, ignored it, possibly because they thought it would all be over after Super Tuesday. How did the Clinton campaign miss that? And how important in the end was it?

Well, there were several factors. The Clinton campaign made a calculation that I thought was devastating. The calculation was that the election, for all intents and purposes, would be over on Super Tuesday.

The Obama campaign made the calculation that we had to win Iowa. If we won Iowa, it would give us life; it would give us an opportunity to compete elsewhere. And we also understood that we didn't have the resources initially; we didn't think we'd be able to compete resource-wise with the Clinton administration. Primaries are so much more expensive than caucus states. Caucus states are on-the-ground, organizational efforts, dealing with a targeted group of people. Primary states are vast, requiring broadcasting and tremendous amounts of resources. So the Clinton campaign had the resources; they had the connections. They thought they could win the primary states. They minimized the value of the caucus states and didn't think they were really that necessary.

We, on the other hand, didn't feel like we had a choice, beginning with the caucuses in Iowa, and that's where it started. Of course, once we won the Iowa caucus, true to form and true to expectation, we began to develop momentum, in fact so much momentum we thought we were going to win New Hampshire. That wasn't to be, and then it played out as it did.

One of the important aspects of [the win in Iowa] was that it convinced a lot of black voters that this was a real candidacy. … How important was it, and how was that viewed within the campaign?

There was a perception that an African American candidate could do well with African American voters but not much beyond that. And so Iowa turned out to be the real litmus test. Did he have the capacity to draw votes from other demographic groups? And when he won with such overwhelming power in Iowa, winning all demographic groups in a white state, it said with tremendous confidence that we could win elsewhere as well. We could win in all parts of the country if we could win in Iowa.

... Lay out South Carolina for us a little bit and what it meant to the campaign and why it's important to understand.

For us, South Carolina was another one of those pivotal campaigns. We had lost New Hampshire, and so we had to get back on the winning track. South Carolina was also a Southern state, and we had to prove we could win in a Southern state. We also had to prove we could energize the African American vote, almost the flipside of Iowa. And so there were a lot of essentials there. There were a lot of things that had to be done in order for us to be able to show we had the sustaining ability in a campaign to go the distance and to win in places outside of what we had already accomplished. ...

The turnout there was phenomenal, and as a result of the turnout, we had an extra benefit in that we could show, really for the first time in a very compelling way, that we could draw [voters] that maybe nobody else could. And that also sent a clear message to other states as they were looking at the viability of all the candidates.

Bill Clinton was saying things, like comparing it to the Jesse Jackson campaign. There were some people who thought he needed to cool down his message. There's been reports that I think Sen. Kennedy talked to you before talking to President Clinton about this. What was the concern, and why was it important, and why was the message not perhaps received by the Clinton people?

I think the concern was that we wanted to be sure people understood that Barack Obama was not an African American candidate, but a candidate who happens to be African American. And there's a huge distinction there. A candidate who happens to be African American also happens to have the resonance, the capacity to draw support and backing from just the broad spectrum of Democratic voters. We needed to prove that and show that, and I think the Clintons understood that that was part of the context of the South Carolina race.

[What did South Carolina mean for African American voters?]

The African American voter bloc has always been skeptical about whether an African American can win in areas outside of the community, and Barack showed that he could win outside the community in Iowa.

But then he had to show just the flipside, that he could also not only attract the non-African American vote but generate the kind of enthusiasm within the African American community that would create the powerful combination of increased turnout which we have always longed for in the African American community. At the same time, we combined that with the extraordinary enthusiasm you saw in the non-African American community. That happened really for the first time in South Carolina.

[Is Obama's candidacy a turning point for the Democratic Party?]

The population in the South, in particular among African Americans, feels disaffected, feels disenfranchised, feels as if there is so little hope that their participation matters. Barack Obama, for the first time, has convinced these voters that it does matter, and that by registering and turning out and participating they can make history, and in so doing redefine the Democratic Party in the South and elsewhere in the country. That's what's happening. You've got more and more people coming forward saying: "I'm going to bet this time that it works. I'm going to bet this time that this new coalition can make a difference. I'm going to bet this time that we together can elect a candidate that we never thought possible 10 years ago."

posted october 14, 2008; updated december 17, 2008

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