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Joe Trippi: Manchurian Operative?

There's been some murmuring in the blogosphere about a Joe Trippi conspiracy theory in recent days, which hinges on the friendship between Trippi and chief Obama strategist David Axelrod. So far as I can tell, the first shot at it came from a Kos diarist named Alegre. Alegre wrote the following on Wednesday: 

Now I just talked with a friend who worked on Dean’s campaign back [in 2004], and she’s scratching her head over this latest negative push by Edwards. She told me that on several occasions, she’d overheard Trippi say he thought Edwards was a DoubleTalker who couldn’t win. Now if you’ll recall, Trippi just joined the Edwards camp a good bit in to Edwards campaign (6 months ago?), and given this sure-to-lose strategy of going so negative in a state that can’t stand the mudslinging--I have to wonder if Axlerod’s [sic] buddy was sent to torpedo Edwards’ campaign here.

Since then, the theory has gotten progressively wider play (see here, for example), culminating in Garance Franke-Ruta's interesting post today on Tapped, in which she unveils some visual evidence of Trippi's ties to Obama. (It's worth pointing out that Garance doesn't endorse the theory herself, but I suspect her post will be used to advance it.)

Since Garance relies a bit on my recent profile of Trippi, I thought it might be worth weighing in with a few thoughts of my own. First, I don't think there's anything at all to the conspiracy theory. Whatever Trippi may have felt about Edwards in 2004, by the time he started talking to John and Elizabeth Edwards about coming aboard in early 2007, they'd long since decided to run an aggressive, populist campaign--one that was turning a lot of heads in the lefty blogosphere--so it's perfectly natrual that Trippi would have wanted to work for them.

Second--and please don't interpret this as a knock on Trippi; it's not intended that way at all--Trippi is a political operative, and what political operatives do is get hired by candidates to help them win elections. They don't always get to work for their dream candidate, but if they want to keep earning a living, they get over it and give it their best shot. Often the way they deal with this is by trying to refashion the candidate in their own image. For example, when I interviewed Trippi in October, he told me he'd even thought Hillary could run "a different kind of campaign"--by which he meant the grassroots, anti-establishment variety he specializes in. (Though he quickly added: "I didn't think they would because they'd have to get rid of so much in-the-beltway thinking...") So Trippi would hardly be the first operative in the world to work for someone he hadn't previously been in love with.

All of that said, Trippi clearly had a thing for Obama before he signed on with Edwards, and he continues to have warm feelings for Obama today. In fact, Trippi told me Obama was basically the guy responsible for getting him interested in doing another presidential campaign:

What happened was, I really like David Axelrod a lot. And so when Obama got in, I had this feeling almost instantaneous like, "Shoot, you know, maybe I should do this again." It’s amazing. I mean, Obama gets part of the credit. That was the first time I started feeling like, "Wait a minute, maybe we can do something different here."

Then he told me this about his first meeting with Edwards:

So, you know, I’ve, like, been doing this a long time and, yeah, I’ve said I’m not going to do it [again]. But, you know, Obama’s got me a little excited about what might happen this cycle, and at this point, shoot, if Biden had called me, or Dodd had called me. … I would [have said], "Here’s what I would do if I were you, here’s why Iowa works the way it does… So I went down. And I think if you read the stuff I’d been posting at MyDD or anything, it was sort of like, "Hey, there’s two people I think would really be a different kind of campaign, Obama and Edwards."

Finally, in talking about why he didn't think Obama's campaign had really done anything so amazing by attracting 350,000 donors, Trippi told me:

We have 300 million Americans. Talk to me when someone has 3 million donors. Because then it's 1 percent of the country, and actually I think that would be a massive movement… For the press and everybody to somehow sit here and go, "But why isn’t he doing better? 350,000 people gave him all this money" … He is a remarkable candidate. There are a lot of African-Americans who want to see him… there are a lot of whites. ... I would love to see the guy become president of the United States.

Frankly if I wasn’t working for Edwards, I would probably have given $500 to Obama and $500 to Edwards. Let’s be honest about it. There’s 350,000 of me out there? That doesn’t mean shit. You know. Um, so, you know, while it’s a big accomplishment. And it is meaningful that that’s happening … it doesn’t [mean very much].

But, then, Trippi is hardly the only employee of a rival presidential campaign who is high on Obama. I know there are several people working for other campaigns who are just as high on Obama--I've talked to them about it personally.

Bottom line: There's no conspiracy. Trippi is just an Obama fan, just like plenty of other operatives who are doing everything they can to help their bosses beat him.

--Noam Scheiber