Karl Rove -- The Architect [home]
photo of ken mehlman
interviews: ken mehlman
Across the political spectrum, we not only appealed to the red areas, making them redder, but we turned a lot of blue areas purple.

Give me your history. How do you find yourself sitting in this exalted position at this moment?

Well, I'm a recovering lawyer. I practiced law for about four years here in Washington and then went to work on Capitol Hill. I worked for two members of Congress: for Lamar Smith, who's from San Antonio, Texas, and Kay Granger from Fort Worth, Texas. And in working for Kay Granger, one of our advisers was Karl Rove, who did our direct mail and advised us on some issues. I got to know him a little bit.

And back in 1999, I got a call from Austin, Texas, saying, "You want to go work for the Bush campaign?" I went down to Austin and first off was the Midwest political director, which meant I was responsible for working in Iowa. And after the primaries, they made me the national field director. I then became White House political director when the president was inaugurated, a position which I held until I was campaign manager. And that kind of leads me up to this. ...

What are your politics?

I'm a Reagan conservative is what I call myself. I got attracted to the Republican Party based on the Cold War, obviously. I'm 38 years old, so I came of age politically in the late '70s, early '80s. ... I thought when Ronald Reagan spoke truth to power, when he talked on behalf of Soviet dissidents, I found that to be very compelling. And the result was, that brought me to the Republican Party.

And I agree with the Republican Party on the notion of free enterprise. I think that we live in a world today where, if we've learned one thing, it's that markets work, and central planning doesn't work. And I also believe, as Republicans mostly believe, that the people in communities ought to decide what's right for them in terms of the cultural norms of their communities, and we shouldn't abrogate those decisions and have judges make the decisions.

So if you believe in judicial restraint, if you believe in free enterprise, if you believe in peace through strength, I guess that makes you a Republican.

... I know that one of the lessons most of the people in the press, or most of the people in the world, took from the [Sen. Barry] Goldwater candidacy was this notion of, "Well, that's it forever for conservatives." That was the loss; that was the moment. And I know that a lot of people who are thinking hard about what's happening now in America go back and say, from the cliché, that was the "Woodstock moment" for a certain group of people.

Currently chairman of the Republican National Committee, Mehlman was the campaign manager of Bush-Cheney 2004, the White House political director from 2001 to 2003, and the national field director for Bush-Cheney 2000. In this interview, he recounts the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, as well as the White House's efforts in the 2002 midterm elections. Mehlman describes the importance of "metrics," or benchmarks that can be measured to show progress. "[T]here was a very methodical effort over the last four years to say: 'How do we grow the electorate in a way that is beneficial to the president?'" he tells FRONTLINE. "'And how do we bring new folks into the cause, and how do we make sure that our political tactics are the most effective they can be?' We used the '01 and '02 elections to test those tactics for '04." Mehlman says because of their efforts, Republicans and Democrats now represent an equal part of the electorate for the first time. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 21, 2004.

It was the moment when conservatives took over one of the two political parties in the country. And certainly today, the Republican Party is a conservative party. It's a big-tent party; it's a broad party. It includes people that agree on 80 percent but don't always agree on the 100 percent. But it's a party that, if you look at the strains of Goldwaterism, which is peace through strength, which is free enterprise, which is a belief that the government that governs best governs closest to the people, those strains are very much alive in today's George W. Bush Republican Party.

When you first were paying attention to politics, did you know about and think about the Goldwater stuff? Were you paying attention to that?

Well, sure. I mean, anybody who was paying attention to politics thought about it. You knew who Barry Goldwater was; you thought about him. Obviously you think about him in more detail today. The thing then the people were saying back in 1980 was -- and there were a lot of people that feared Ronald Reagan as our nominee -- they said, "It's going to be a repeat of Goldwater." And in fact it turned out to be very different.

Reagan added a lot to the Goldwater argument in two respects. First of all, between 1964 and 1980, the American people saw again and again and again the failure of liberalism. We saw liberalism that produced high inflation, high unemployment, high interest rates -- a terrible misery index.

We saw a liberalism that had produced, in many people's minds, a failure of the Vietnam War, and then an unwillingness on behalf of so many people to even support a common-sense projection of American force. We saw a liberalism that made excuses for crime instead of punishing criminals. And so I think what happened between 1964 and 1980 was a lot of people got evidence for the arguments that Barry Goldwater had made in their own lives and ended up voting for Ronald Reagan.

The second thing you had is that Ronald Reagan sold his argument in a much more populist way than Barry Goldwater did. One of the most important things that changed in our politics was we went from being a balanced-budget-only economic Republican approach to one that emphasized not only reducing spending but also cutting taxes. The supply-side arguments that Ronald Reagan adopted and that most conservatives believe in today were very important, I think, to making us have the victory we had in 1980. …

So you get to Texas, and in 1999, Texas is now in the great swing toward Republicanism. Why is it moving? What's happening?

I think it's moving for the same reasons that some of the other states have moved. Politics is not divorced from personal experience, and what people in Texas, like people in so many other states, saw was a liberalism that again and again and again had been wrong about big government and central planning; had been wrong about a post-Vietnam unwillingness to project and use American force; was wrong about supporting an education monopoly that didn't give parents enough choices.

If you're under 40 -- I'm 38 years old -- think about what you've seen in your life. You've seen a military that was very successful in the Gulf War. You've seen a president that, through strong rhetoric and speaking truth to power, helped bring down the wall of the Soviet Union. You've seen central planning fail, and you've seen in your own life the ability to make choices.

So if one political approach says, "Parents ought to have more choices in a school, and individuals ought to have more choices in how they retire and in health care," and the other side says, "You can't trust people to make their decisions because they may screw up," if you're younger, then you're I think much more likely to be on the right than on the left. Today the idealism is on our side, not their side. We're the ones that say, "Let's try these things; let's see if they work," and they're the ones who say, "We can't do it because we don't trust the people." ...

Define for me the George Bush you meet in Texas. Who is that guy? Is it a lightning-bolt moment for you when you meet him?

It's not a lightning bolt; I'd met him before. What it is, he's someone who is very informal and familiar; someone who, when you meet him, is friendly, not at all pretentious; someone who, secondly, is very curious about information. Whenever I dealt with him, he's someone who almost in a Socratic approach, by asking questions, gets lots of information and is very well informed about almost everything that I'm doing and has lots of intelligent questions about the things that we're doing.

What kinds of things would you be doing?

Well, I was firstly the Midwest political director; second, the national field director. My job was to help organize the country for the president. He knew what was happening; he knew where it was happening; he knew who was involved. He had questions about it; he asked whether things made sense or not. And he's someone who, by incisive questioning, is very effective at getting to the heart of the matter. …

Where does that come from? I mean, I know he was involved in the '80 campaign of his father; then, of course, '88 and '92, his own campaign for governor.

I think it comes from that experience. It comes from the fact that I think he's very smart. I think he's somebody who's a good executive, and I think he knows where he wants to lead. A lot of times, if you know where you want to go and you know how the process works, and you're curious about how to get there, then you're in a good position to be able to get to the essence of things. But part of it is, it's a kind of intelligence that most people don't have.

So you're in charge of the Midwest. Did it feel like a major kind of crusade?

Yeah. Well, remember, I was in the Midwest in the primaries. The whole country in general -- I don't know if I'd say it felt like a crusade. What I said is, what it felt like was and what you had down there was a whole lot of people that were really idealistic about our country, who were very idealistic about what could happen in the country.

At the time that the Gore campaign was saying, basically, "Things are great; they've never been better," we were saying, "They can be better." Think of what George Bush ran for president on in 2000, saying: "We can do better on education; we can do better on health care; we can do better on retirement. And our military needs to change based on these new, asymmetric threats," which turned out to be very prescient. So all of those things were examples of a campaign and an approach that was very idealistic. It was a very idealistic campaign.

Give me a sense of [Karl] Rove. We all hear some myths, some realities. Give me a sense of the guy.

Karl is first and foremost loyal. That is the most important quality about him you need to know. He's loyal to the president in a way that very few people have ever been as an adviser to a president, loyal. Karl doesn't view his own agenda as separate apart from the president's, but his agenda is serving the president.

Secondly, he's someone who's very curious about and interested in policy. A lot of people in the political, professional world are interested in the game of politics. And Karl is good at the game of politics, but he is much more interested in policy than he is about the specific blocking and tackling of politics. I've always found that to be interesting about this guy, that policy was what motivated him as much as politics.

Third, there are a lot of people who work for him -- I've had the opportunity to work for him now since 1999 and have always found him to be very loyal to myself and to others who work for him. He's got a good sense of humor. He, like the president, takes his job seriously [but] does not take himself seriously. Unpretentious.

You walk around the White House and you see folks who are not the political staff, but the people that make the White House work -- whether they work in the mess or they work in the parking lot or they drive you, people that are critically important; people who too often a lot of people in politics don't know. And Karl Rove knows their names, knows who they are, knows their stories and treats them with the respect they deserve.

So in a practical way, what did you learn from him when you started that job down there?

Well, I learned a lot of things. First of all, he teaches you a lot about politics, about how things work; about the importance of grassroots, something I had believed in, but then my belief was reinforced. You learn to treat everybody you deal with [with] respect. You learn to get a lot of information out there. You learn that the most important thing you could have in politics is metrics by which you can judge whether things are successful or unsuccessful, all those things.

Tell me about metrics. It's a phrase I read about.

You know, hope is not a strategy, and a lot of people who are in politics and business and elsewhere say, "We're doing this; we hope it works." Well, the question is, how do you know if it's working? And he believes -- and I strongly believe, too -- in having benchmarks that you agree on up front that will tell you if it's working, and measuring those benchmarks on a regular basis. By measuring those benchmarks, you're in a place where you can know whether you're successful or not.

So the 2004 campaign did that for everything. We did it for raised dollars; we did it for voter registration; we did it for number of visits we wanted to make to different places around the country; we did it for polling; we did it for number of people who wanted to book on television. I was the campaign manager; my job was to be the CEO of the campaign. Well, you're not going to be effective if you're micromanaging people. So how do you simultaneously take that job and also be sure that you know things are going along? My belief is, develop a plan. When you agree with the different people who are helping do this, one, how do you measure if a plan is successful? That's known as metrics.

... So let's take New Hampshire, and then let's go to South Carolina. What did you guys see? What did you believe going into New Hampshire? ...

Well, certainly up in New Hampshire, [Sen. John] McCain caught fire and did a great job. Brought a lot of independents into the process, and as I recall, I think he may even have won among Republicans. We didn't run as good a campaign as we could have. We ran a good campaign, I thought, but at the end of the day, we needed to do better. In South Carolina, we did better. …

How decisive was winning South Carolina?

Oh, it was very important, very important to getting the president winning the nomination. It wasn't the only thing. Obviously Super Tuesday came, and we won all over the country. But it was important. ... The momentum effect is incredibly important. It helped. If you remember that one of the reasons John Kerry was nominated was because winning is a habit, and losing is a habit.

Say more about that.

If you were a Democrat in 2004, you knew about John Kerry, that he was a winner. You knew he won in Iowa because you watched it on television and read about it in the newspaper. Then New Hampshire, then South Carolina, then state after state after state. And so there's a momentum effect by which winning produces more wins, and losing produces more losses. And that's true very much in politics, I know. ...

We'll come back to what happened; I'm still in 2000. Give me your impression of how Bush is as a presidential candidate, as a force you are riding.

I think he's always been a very good candidate, and I think the reason is, he was a governor. And he governed as a leader, and he spoke like a leader, and he acted like a leader. If you're a leader, what are you supposed to do? You're supposed to lay out a vision of where you want to take people. You're supposed to convince them and persuade them that that vision makes sense for them as well as for you. And you're supposed to call them to action. And George W. Bush, whether he was head of the Texas Rangers or governor of Texas, has always been a great leader. And so he understood the skills of leadership. …

Give me a sense of where you are right near the end of the 2000 election. How do you think he's going to do?

Well, the election, obviously we thought it was very close. It was very close. It was one of the most amazing elections in history because you had us up sometimes and [Al Gore] up sometimes, back and forth. I think we clearly won the period of the debates. I think we were hurt by the DUI revelation. And I think the result was an election that was basically a dead-even race.

How important was the DUI?

I think it hurt; there's no question. I think it had a momentum effect that helped Al Gore.

But momentum in the sense that it also slowed your momentum with the evangelicals -- is that what you're saying?

I'm not sure exactly. I think what it did is, the Friday before the election it had us talking about an issue on which we were having to defend, as opposed to make our case. And that's obviously damaging.

And where were you election night?

I was in Austin, Texas, until about 2:00 in the morning, and then I headed down to Florida.

So tell me your story.

Thirty-seven days of purgatory. I was there Election Day all day. I was the national field director, so I was overseeing all of the -- you know, based on reports of turnout, we had our own turnout system. We were pumping calls into different places and putting people on radio and TV, and obviously working the process. And it was quite a long and intense day. And obviously at the beginning of the evening, things looked troubled and bad. But as happened in '04 and again in '02, the exit polls were wrong. And in fact, it turned out to be a dead-even race.

At about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, I went down to Florida and ... served in a similar role in Florida that I'd served nationally, which was putting together the organization that would be involved. We were overseeing the organization that will be involved in the counting, and in the different counties, making sure that the process was occurring in an honest and open and transparent way.

Who did you go with when you went down? How did you go?

There was a private plane we got; there were six of us that went on the first plane. And we all got in on the plane, and we said, "We're going to discuss strategy and figure out the whole deal." And we all promptly fell asleep.

Why you, then?

Well, I was national field director, I was an attorney, and so it made sense. My mission had been in the campaign to oversee a field operation. We clearly needed to very quickly put together a field operation. And as an attorney, I knew the legal process and basic procedure in a way that was also useful and helpful.

Have you ever been involved in anything like that?

No. No one alive has been involved in anything like that. When you think about it -- presidential recount? It's never happened before.

What was it like?

It was wild. And I'll tell you, I think that the right thing happened in terms of the people having voted, and there was a level of subjectivity that I saw that was very troubling. Whether it was people looking at a ballot and there was no apparent mark on the ballot, saying, "Gore," or boxes showing up to count later on, there were parts of it that were very troubling. And I think there were people down there whose mission was to try to steal the election, and they didn't succeed.

And I'm very proud of the fact that we worked hard in an open and transparent way to call attention to what was going on down there, because I think once we did that, the inevitable result was for the court to say: "Wait a minute. We shouldn't be subjectively trying to, like a soothsayer, figure out what somebody's intent might be."

And where are you when the Supreme Court [rules]?

I was in the headquarters of the Republican Party of Florida in Tallahassee, with a whole bunch of other people who were cheering and drinking champagne and very happy.

Did you know what was coming? Did you have a sense of it all?

Oh, yeah. Well, you had a sense because you knew they had to decide within a couple days, or the electoral college pre-activities couldn't occur.

But did you know it was coming your way?

No. I mean, when the Supreme Court issued a stay on the recount, that was a very good sign that they were thinking our way.

So we get President Bush elected; you guys come to town. Do you have a job you're hoping for at the time?

During the recount, I had a conversation with Karl Rove, who was going to have a senior adviser position in the White House, and asked about being political [director]. And that was the job I wanted; it was the job I got. So one of the great things I've had working for this team is that I've never had to press for a job -- being political director at the White House, being campaign manager, and now being nominated to be RNC chairman, of all things, that they've approached me about.

And one of the great things about this president and this team -- I mentioned loyalty -- is they look after folks who they think have served them well. And there's not the usual Washington parlor game of, how do you lobby to get a job?

What's a political director? What did you do for them?

Well, my job was to look after the president's political interests around the country, and it included a lot of different things. First of all, it included helping make sure we provided the support we needed for candidates running for office around that time. The president believed that he wanted to be president to do things for the country. There's two models: One is to say, "I like the office;" the other is to say, "I want to accomplish things." If you want to accomplish things, an important part of it is electing allies who are willing to work with you to accomplish those things.

So we got very involved in the '02 races, and my job as political director was to oversee that process for the White House and for the administration: Who do we travel to? Who do we help? Who do we raise money for? And what do we talk about when we go there? What advice do we give them? How can we help them in an appropriate way? All those were part of my mission. Secondly, to advise on politically sensitive issues, advise the president's policymakers on those issues; third, obviously to work with the Republican National Committee and the other committees to provide as much administration support as we could for their efforts that were going forward; and fourth, to help make sure -- we had this huge national organization in 2000 that had governors and elected officials all over the country. We identified a lot of really talented people, many of whom served in the administration, and we knew about them. And so helping to plug in those people for the people in the presidential personnel office so that they knew about it was all part of the job that one has, as political director.

It was a wonderful job. I loved it. And obviously the '02 cycle turned out pretty well.

... I've read and heard about the idea that Rove and you and others sit there and look at what happened and how close it was in 2000. What was the Monday morning quarterbacking about what you knew you needed to do in order to not only get re-elected, but to do what you needed to do?

Well, a couple things. One, we had made an unprecedented effort on behalf of grassroots in 2000, and we wanted to continue with that effort and to try to institutionalize that effort and improve that effort even more. Secondly, we looked at the electorate, and we said, "What does it take to get to 51 percent, and where do we need to improve?" And we made a methodical effort to try to improve among Latinos, among African Americans, among women, among the Jewish Americans, and state by state, to improve among those key groups. And there were other groups we needed to maintain our support among.

And so there was a very methodical effort over the last four years to say: "How do we grow the electorate in a way that is beneficial to the president? And how do we bring new folks into the cause, and how do we make sure that our political tactics are the most effective they can be?" We used the '01 and '02 elections to test those tactics for '04.

So how does it happen, really practically speaking? Take me right down into the nuts and bolts of the boiler room. ... Who leads the meeting? How does it go? Are there statistics laid out on the table?

Well, there's a lot of different meetings. Basically what happens is everybody on the team recognizes our mission needs to be to use the '02 cycle to do [three] things: one, try to elect allies and friends; two, build the organization further that we had built in 2000 working with the Senate and House campaigns; and three, figure out the best practices politically for '04. And those were all things we tried to do.

And then in doing those things, we were able in target states, I think, to help grow important parts of the electorate. So Republicans and Democrats, for the first time ever in '04 -- it's never happened before -- we're each 37 percent of the electorate. Never before in recorded political history have Republicans and Democrats represented an equal part of the electorate. Usually Democrats have an advantage. That didn't happen this time. Part of why it didn't happen is we had a four-year voter registration program. Part of why it didn't happen was in '02, we figured out and targeted ways to reach out to Republicans who are irregular voters. So that's what we tried to use the four-year period as political director to try to accomplish.

How do these things happen? Whose ideas are these?

Different people's. Some of them are mine; some of them are Karl Rove's; some of them are people at the Republican National Committee. They had a great team. They had Blaise Hazelwood, who was political director; he did a great job. And Jack Oliver, who was deputy chairman, did a great job. We had Marc Racicot, who was the chairman, who did a great job. And so one of the things that I always have thought about our team is, people are not into personal credit; they're into sharing credit. And so it's not like, "It's my idea; I'm the guy." It's much more about coming up with good ideas by an interchange in the discussion.

And when you're at the White House, who do you report to as political director?

Karl Rove.

So you report to Rove. How does the organizational chart look when you guys take over in 2000? I know he's policy and politics, at that kind of intersection. Give me the organizational chart.

Well, he's an assistant to the president. He oversees four offices: the political office; the public liaison office, which reaches out to groups on behalf of the president's agenda; the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; and the Office of Strategic Initiatives, or, as we call it, "strategery." And those four offices all report to Karl.

Tell me why you call it "strategery."

There was an old Saturday Night Live routine [where] they made fun of the president, talking about his "strategery." And any time Saturday Night Live makes fun of you, good, you've got to embrace it. ...

When you're political director, when you're out there, your ear's to the ground, you're hearing movements, and there's things you want. You want Hispanic voters; you want women enfranchised; you want to find something for African Americans. Are you pushing back in terms of the policy side of Rove's operation to say, "Let's think about the things that will help"?

Sure, absolutely.

What are those things?

Well, there's lots of examples of those things. Education issues: No Child Left Behind was a very important thing that I think helped us explain to people this president's commitment to close the gap between minority and nonminority students. A home ownership initiative that says, for the first time ever, we're going to make sure that African Americans and Latino Americans don't have a lower ownership gap than Anglo Americans do. The tax relief, which says to an increasing majority of Americans that own stock and investments, we're not going to double-tax you on that; that's wrong. It says to farmers, you can pass on your estate or your farm to your child if you want to; you don't have to sell it in the process. To small-business people, who are tired of excessive and out-of-control lawsuits. So all of these.

But good policy is good politics. And so our mission was to say, "Here are the political implications, but here's the good policy that our job is to try to market."

As political director, I did not go in and say, "Here are the four things we need to do to win this group." My job was to offer advice when asked, and also to figure out how to market.

Tell me about how the interaction works between Rove's side of the house, the president, and maybe others who may be open for things to happen.

Well, Karl obviously is one of a number of people who are his colleagues, who would offer advice to the president on lots of different issues: on personnel and politics, on policy and all those things. And so Karl participates in the policy process. …

So now we're at the midterm 2002. Are there some races, are there critical things you know as kind of bellwether, watermark, whatever you want to call them, watershed moments where you say, "Jeez, if we prevail here ..."?

Well, the first thing was candidate recruitment. We were very aggressive very early in working with our colleagues at the RNC and the NRSC [National Republican Senatorial Committee] -- Bill Frist was the chairman at the time -- in recruiting the best candidates to run, the Jim Talents, the Saxby Chamblisses, the John Thunes, the Norm Colemans, people like that, to get them all to run. That was very important.

And what does that mean? How do you know what a great candidate is?

Well, a lot of different things. Like a lot of these are folks that had been elected statewide before or had run statewide before and run good races. They had high name ID; they were smart; they were effective; they were telegenic. And for all those reasons, they were people that had a lot of support statewide. We would not get involved in a race unless the Bush leadership in the state from 2000 and the NRSC and the RNC and the state party all thought it was a good idea. But when they all did, we as a group could come and try to be helpful.

And how would you be helpful?

We'd send in the president for a fund-raiser; we'd offer advice; we would try to provide financial support from our finance family -- all those things.

So when 2002 happens, how successful was it?

Oh, it was historic. I think it's the first time since, I think, 1934 the president's party gained seats in the first midterm election in both the House and the Senate. It was unprecedented, what happened in 2002. And what was exciting to me was not only that we had this victory, but that we had it on behalf of candidates that I thought would do a fantastic job.

So where are you when the returns are coming in?

Election night, I was having dinner with the president. Karl and ... [White House Chief of Staff] Andy Card, I believe, was there. And with Bill Frist and Trent Lott and Denny Hastert and Tom Davis, who is head of the NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee]. Marc Racicot was there, as I recall. And we all had dinner and watched the returns up in the residence. It was a wonderful evening.

What's it like, when they're rolling in like that?

It was very positive; it was a great night. If I look back over the last four years, it was one of the most enjoyable nights I think I've had at any point in the last four years.

Is it really a kind of high-five moment, or is it different than that?

Well, obviously people are very happy, but it's also you're -- look, there's a tremendous number of races to watch, and you're paying attention. A lot of these races are very close, so you're calling and getting returns; you're getting results; you're talking to people in the states. But I was tremendously proud of the effort we had made and our ability to help people. And more than us -- look, this wasn't about the president; it was about the candidates. I was very proud of Norm Coleman and Jim Talent and Saxby Chambliss and [New Hampshire Sen.] John Sununu and those folks who had run great races. …

When did you finally come around to thinking about 9/11 in political terms?

… While it's my job as political director to think about those tactics, I never thought about 9/11 from that perspective. I thought that our big question was, what was appropriate for us to even do politically after the attacks? And we, as you may remember, in 2001 didn't really engage in a lot of politics because we thought it was not appropriate.

Absolutely. I was wondering whether it set you back a little bit, because you couldn't --

Well, no. Obviously we still had a job to do at the Office of Political Affairs, and we were doing that job, but there's more for our jobs than just that the president goes down the road and does political events. ...

One other question about the candidates in 2002; then we'll move on to '04. Is there a philosophical litmus test for the kind of candidate you're looking for in terms of --

No, there's not a litmus test, not at all. I think that the candidates that we were looking for were the candidates that were most likely to win in their states. I do think there is a Bush brand of Republicanism; I think that exists. But that's not because we've selected the Bush brand. That's because I think the president's leadership is magnetic and attracts others. And just as Ronald Reagan, and before him Franklin Roosevelt, attracted people to a certain style of governance and a certain philosophy, I think the president has done the same thing.

So in a kind of quick walk down the arc, take me from Goldwater conservatism to "compassionate conservatism."

I think Goldwater conservatism emphasized the need to limit government and the need to take the Soviets on in a more aggressive way, and that's what he focused on. I think that President Reagan refined that model of conservatism to do two things: one, to argue that not only did you need to limit government, but in a way that empowered people. It was much more populist. It explained how a limited government in Washington gave more power, more decisions, more money to the people to make those decisions.

And then it added a values angle to it that was very important. [There were] people who were worried about the fact that a coarsening culture was bad in terms of their desire to raise their children in a society that was compassionate, in a society that taught children the right values. And a lot of people were worried, particularly in the debate about abortion, about the fact that the most vulnerable people in our society -- whether it was the elderly or the unborn -- were vulnerable, and wanted to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

And so those issues, which had come up in the '60s and the '70s, were an important part of Reagan conservatism. So the three legs of Reagan conservatism are peace through strength; free enterprise, which not only produces a good overall economy but empowers American families, so it's more populist, the argument; and the third leg is a society that is decent, that looks out for the most vulnerable, and that makes sure that children can be raised in a world where the culture is not so coarse.

[As for] steps forward -- what is the difference between the Bush model and the Reagan model? Well, first of all, the times are different. Whereas once we faced Soviet aggressiveness, today we face international terrorism. Peace through strength is still one of the legs, but peace is maintained through a different approach to making sure that America is strong and that the world promotes democracy, and we promote democracy around the world.

Second is the free-enterprise argument. We still make that argument, but we make it with respect to different things. Back then it was the deregulation of various industries; today it is, how do we bring the private sector and the free markets into improved health care, into improving retirement? How do we increase the choices available to parents in education and ensure accountability there? So the second argument is still there, but it's there with a different approach, given the different challenges we face.

And I think third, again, millions of Americans continue to be concerned about a culture that they see as too coarse, and about the most vulnerable in our society. And so conservatism today has the same three legs that it's had, frankly, since the beginning, but I think it is dealing with different challenges today. And it's more refined and more nuanced in the arguments it has. ...

Good policy really is good politics. The American people I think increasingly, compared to where they were 20 years ago, are more Republican as a proportion of the electorate, because Republican and conservative ideas have worked, and liberal and Democratic ideas have not worked as well.

So it's not some magical tinkering by Karl Rove and the political machine; it is actually --

We've tried to do as good a job as we can in identifying conservatives and Republicans and reaching out to them and persuading others to join the cause. But fundamentally, big changes in our politics -- and certainly over the last 30 years there's been a change in our politics -- occur because of ideas working more than specific tactics. …

… What does it mean to be campaign manager? What do you set out to do?

Well, the first thing I set out to do is, like when you have any organization, is to hire the best people you can to be your deputies, to help be part of a good organization. Good management, first and foremost, is hiring good people. Secondly, you work with those people to develop a plan, and you write the plan down and you put it on paper. [Third,] based on the plan, you develop a budget: You think how much you can raise and how you'd like to spend that money.

Fourth, you develop what I discussed before, metrics, which are ways you know whether your plan is working or not. Our goal is to raise X; how much does that mean we need to raise per week to get there? How do we measure that per week, how do we measure it per city [and] how do we measure it per event so that we're not surprised when they find out we're not doing well or we are doing well?

The same thing with voter registration; same thing with the number of presidential visits; same thing with everything we do. If you can't measure it, it's not worth doing, because then you know whether you're being successful. That's how you avoid hope being your strategy.

So what are the arcane, little things that none of us know about, that you worried a lot about in those early [days]?

Well, I worried about a lot of different things. Obviously I worried about our ability to turn our voters out. We had a very aggressive voter registration program. Every week I would get reports to see how we were doing by state -- how we were doing, and how the Democrats were doing. I worried about the fact that the country was closely divided. Therefore, we were going to be in a position where we needed to bring new people into the electorate. How are we doing in reaching out to Republicans who didn't always vote? How are we doing among African Americans and Latino Americans, where we had a commitment to improve our performance? That was something. How we're doing in raising the money we needed -- that's always something. If you don't have the money, then you don't have the resources you need to execute the plan.

So all those were things that you were -- "worried" is too strong -- that you were thinking about. And one of the other advantages of having a system that measures is you don't worry. I never was laying awake at night worrying about the campaign. During the entire 18 months, I slept like a baby every single night because I had confidence in our plan and in our people and in our system. And that confidence was buoyed by the fact that I was getting information that confirmed things were going the right way. …

How much do you need the president in that early going, and how valuable is he?

We started off with the president writing a letter, and then within four weeks he started doing some fund-raising events. I think he did it at the end of June, so it was more than four weeks -- about six weeks. And we need him a lot. The fact is, people are giving money because of this president. So he's not involved in politics himself, but he's raising some resources for us, and that was very important.

How important?

Well, it's very important. We raise a lot of money in the mail. But typically, the way a presidential campaign works is -- and certainly Republican campaigns -- in the beginning you'll raise more money in events and less money in the mail, and at the end, more money in the mail and less money in events, because your direct mail donors typically give when they hear a lot of news on politics. And in the spring of '03, there's not a lot of news on politics. So the president would travel around the country when he had time, do fund-raising events. That was the big way we raised resources.

And 2004 is different than 2000, I mean, other than the fact that you've got the incumbency working for you, which is obviously incredibly important?

Or it can [work] against you. Look, the incumbency is a challenge, too, and it's much harder from a manager's perspective. It's much harder to run a re-election campaign than an election campaign.


Because in an election campaign, you're independent. In a re-election campaign, you're serving the White House, a whole other organization, a whole other entity. If there's bad news every morning or some mornings, you own the bad news. And obviously we had some difficult headlines in '03 and '04. So I think that the incumbency is both a blessing and a curse. ...

Do you work still for Rove in this process, or you're on your own?

Well, Karl is at the White House, not at the campaign. He was certainly the prime White House person on the campaign, and he was involved in everything we did, and we got his advice and worked with him. But when he hired me he said, "Your job is to run the campaign -- not my job." And one of the things that's good about Karl is he trusts people and put[s] them in position.

If you look at history -- and before we did this, remember, we had gone through the presidential libraries. We got lots of information about the previous campaigns. And one of the things we found was that in both '92 and '76, but mainly '92, there was a challenge in the sense that it wasn't clear who was running the campaign. And a lot of people at the campaign tried to tell the White House what to do; a lot of people at the White House tried to tell the campaign what to do.

And so we set up a structure that made it clear that wasn't going to happen in this campaign. And Karl and my working closely together, and involving other decision makers like Dan Bartlett, like our communications director Nicolle Devenish, all of that was very important to making the system work effectively. And when I started I said it's important to me that I'm in charge of hiring and firing everybody, and I'm in charge of spending. And a lot of people would have gotten guff for saying that, and it shows you the kind of folks we're dealing with at the White House. When I said that to Karl, he said: "That's a smart thing. You're right; you need to have it."

So how do you stay connected then?

We talk constantly. We meet a lot, talk a lot. We have a system of meetings and of conversations that allows us to plan effectively, make sure everyone knows that everything's going on, involve the right people in making decisions, and then ultimately be in a position to execute it.

And when you set those goals, is the president involved in knowing what those goals are?

Some goals he is; other goals he's not. Obviously he needs to know some of the goals. But he's not a micromanager, and he's got more important things to do than worrying about a lot of the little goals. ...

The role of the religious constituency -- I've read plenty about it; it seems to me like a real difference [in that] it's not the Moral Majority leading something; it's not Pat Robertson doing it; it's happening out there kind of independently. This goes, I guess, back to 2000 even. Do you recognize that that's kind of --

We knew that we're seeing about 80 percent of people who are religious conservatives, which include folks that are committed Christians; it includes Orthodox Jews; it includes folks from a number of different denominations. But obviously expanding that part of the electorate is very important. And as I mentioned in the beginning, this is a part of the electorate that, before the '70s, wasn't even really involved in politics.

And certainly I think that there are millions of Americans who genuinely worry about a coarsening culture and who genuinely worry about the most vulnerable and weak in our society. And the president, I believe and they believe, has policies to protect the most weak and vulnerable in our society and has certainly publicly talked about a responsibility era, [in] which people take responsibility, including those people who have coarsened the culture. And I think that if you look at those policies, earning their support was very important to us.

So do you know in 2004 that you've got those people in the bases?

Well, you know from polling and other things that the base is very united. George W. Bush went into this 2004 election with consistent support among Republicans and among conservatives, over 90 percent, larger than anyone's had since Ronald Reagan in '84, larger than Ronald Reagan in '84. And importantly, that base, our base, Republicans and conservatives, constitute a larger proportion of the electorate in '04 than they did 20 years before, in 1984.

I know a lot of the press was mocking the idea of a base strategy.

The press, unfortunately for them, believes that it's zero-sum, that it's either a base or a swing strategy. And the fact is, we appeal to both. As I said, from a base perspective, conservatives increased their participation level as a proportion of the electorate. Republicans were for the first time ever equal to Democrats in their participation level of the electorate. At the same time, 44 percent of the Latino vote, the highest ever.

We improved our performance among people that live in big cities by 13 points, from 26 to 39 percent. African Americans go up, Jewish Americans go up, women go up. Across the political spectrum, we not only appealed to the red areas, making them redder, but we turned a lot of blue areas purple. ...

... [What were your strategies] to use local press to your advantage? Whose idea is that? How did it work?

Well, the way it works is this: People get their information from a lot more sources today than they got it before, 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, the big three networks -- people watched the evening news and got their information. Today with the Web, with local news, with talk radio, with so many other sources of information out there, people get their information from lots of those sources.

And so certainly one of the most important things we did is to put our message out at every one of those levels. Information has been democratized -- small "d" -- in a remarkable way over the last four, five, six years. And a smart campaign makes sure that the marketplace of ideas -- its ideas are available in lots of different venues.

I've watched local news which says, "The president is coming," so they cover the landing of Air Force One, and they get helicopters down at the thing; the local anchors are out.

It's a great story, it's an interesting story, and it's very important.

And how did you decide where he goes and when he does it?

A lot of it's based on polling; a lot of it's based on the number of days that are available; a lot of it's based on the number of electoral votes in the state. We have a formula we allocate and move around and change.

So when I talk to [chief campaign strategist] Matthew [Dowd] or somebody like that, they're going to be able to tell me exactly how things were timed?

[Campaign strategist Sarah Taylor] was the person who was responsible for developing that formula and helping make sure that we kept on track on that formula. And obviously a lot of other people were involved -- Matthew, myself, Karl -- in talking about the formula, but Sarah was fundamentally the person that, based on electoral votes, based on the numbers we were getting, developed and helped keep us on track, on that formula.

So where are you election night? Where are you on the exit poll thing?

I'm in the office. We had set up a whole war room at the campaign. We were not only getting tracking polling we knew we'd get from the networks, but we had our own system of monitoring returns and monitoring information.

And for instance, I knew by about 2:00 in the afternoon that we had met by then, met our vote going to Lancaster County, Pa., which is the biggest county in the state in terms of Republican vote goals. I knew that we were doing incredibly well in the panhandle and along the northern part of the I-4 corridor. And so when those numbers came in, which were totally inconsistent with all the figures I was getting, my conclusion was, like in '02, like in '00, strike three on the exit polls. And I told people that I believed it who asked about it. And I actually had a nice conversation with the president and 41, the 41st president, during the day. And I walked them through why I felt the numbers were inaccurate.

How were they about the numbers when they were first getting them? Were they nervous about your whole approach?

Yeah, they didn't sound nervous to me. I was busy working at the headquarters, but I talked to them several times, and each time when I talked to them, I made what I felt was the case. They didn't seem like they thought the numbers were accurate. ...

Some of the exit polls were so off that it was clear there was an issue. And we weren't losing Pennsylvania by 20 points; we weren't going to be behind in Virginia. And so that made us think there was a question mark. And then we ended up discovering that it was an 18-point advantage for women['s] participation in the process, 58, 59 percent women, which is not where the electorate is.

So how did you know you won? When did you know?

When the foreign numbers came in, I felt very good. And talking to our people in Ohio, I felt good about where we were.

What time of day is that? Do you remember? Is it early evening?

Early evening. Early to mid-evening.

And was there ever a nail-biter moment from then on until the evening?

No. Obviously you're watching it closely, but I'm not a nail biter, and I didn't find 2000 to be a nail-biting moment. You worry about things you can control, and if you can't control them, you can't worry about them.

Let's talk a little bit about '06 and what's coming.

'06 is a big challenge for the president and the president's party. The president's party typically loses 29 seats in the House and about 10 seats in the Senate in their last midterm. Obviously our mission and our goal is to take the challenge of '06 and turn it into an opportunity, just like we did in '02, and one of the ways we're going to try to do that is to work with the campaigns in '06 to make available to them many of the same tactics that we used in '04 out of the Republican National Committee.

And our mission is also, I believe -- good policy being good politics -- to over the next two years accomplish a lot of our legislative agenda accomplishments, which will help us in '06 as well.

[What is your legislative agenda?]

Social Security reform, tort reform, tax reform -- all are important. Taking the gains we made in education K-8th grade and applying it through high school graduation. An energy bill for the country that moves us off of dependence on foreign oil, increasing both production and also increasing conservation here at home. All of those are examples.

And this stuff we hear -- I know you guys aren't actually saying it; it seems to be mostly the press and the chattering class that are saying it -- that this is a Republican majority for the next 30 years, Democrats [are moved] into kind of a minority position?

Well, certainly the Republicans have in the last two elections won a majority of the vote, meaning 50-plus percent, in the House race of '02 and in the presidential race in '04. Democrats have not gotten a majority in any presidential race since 1976 and in any House race since 1992. That having been said, I believe that the country remains closely divided; I believe we've got to work very hard. And I think that what you need to do is, we need to, every single day, continue to earn the support of the people, and then the rest takes care of itself.

But I'm certainly not out there as hopefully being the next RNC chairman saying, "We're now a majority; we're going to win for the next 30 years; it's a lock." That's the wrong approach to look at it. The approach is, you've got to earn it every day.

And what is the single thing you're worried the most about?

I don't know if I'm worried about things. The single thing I'm most committed to doing is to help enact the agenda that this president and this majority were elected to do; secondly, to institutionalize within the party and within other campaigns what we did in 2004; and third is to expand our majority and to grow our party, to make sure we continue to do better among African Americans, among Latino Americans, among Asian Americans, among people that live in big cities -- to explain to people why this party, the party of the open door, offers a vision for a safer America, for a more prosperous America and for an America where people in their own communities can decide what's best for them rather than being told what to do by Washington.

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posted april 12, 2005

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