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The TNR Q&A: Joe Trippi

One of John Edwards's chief strategists on why his boss dropped out, the importance of Super Tuesday, and Barack Obama's biggest mistakes.


So tell me what went right for you guys.

There’s no doubt the progressive agenda was moved forward in a big way by John Edwards and the campaign. I worry about what would have happened had he not been in. The Clintons might not have proposed a health care plan, because they didn’t want the details to be knocked around by an opponent. That’s a fact. That’s what she was saying in the early stages. He put a universal health care plan out there first; he was the first one, really, with a stimulus plan; with a strong global warming policy, you name it; including pushing her on the war initially when no one would take her on on it. Just about every point, any issue that mattered. Both candidates--Obama and Clinton--were pushed to take stronger progressive positions than either was likely to take.

Listen to both of them now. Talking about how we have to take on entrenched interests and corporate greed. Even the rhetoric has been affected. I’ve learned a long time ago that often, as disappointing as it is to lose, a losing candidacy can have a much bigger impact on the party, the future of the country, the direction of where things are going. I’d make that case with 2004. Kerry did win the nomination. The longer-lasting changes in terms of the direction of the party, in terms of how campaigns are being waged today, in the strength of the Democratic Party, the grassroots, the ability to raise low-dollar sums--Obama was even [made] possible, the way he raises the money. The campaign that had a bigger impact on all that was Dean, not Kerry. That’s not a hit on the eventual nominee. Often the campaign that stands on principle, makes a bigger case for change within the party, may lose, but it had the bigger impact on the eventual direction of country. It remains to be seen if the Edwards campaign may be able to claim that mantle in 2008.


What went wrong?

In the end, it was just impossible to break through against these two. “Letting history blaze its path,” that line in his [final] speech, that’s really true to how it felt inside. We felt we had better positions, stronger positions, better thought-out positions. We were talking about things no one else was talking about. Ending poverty, to give one example. The press was interested in history. The electorate was interested in history. This isn’t to blame the press. You have two historic candidates, that’s not the press’s fault. Not voters’ fault. That’s the way it was. Increasingly, we were having to be more strident. We had to be more aggressive to become heard. As the cycle moves on, it got to the point where we could have gotten more attention if we set ourselves on fire. But as much as people may think that’s a page in my game plan, none of us wanted to do that.  That’s not what Edwards wanted to do. When it got down to it, we could get 300 delegates, play the role of spoiler, or kingmaker at the convention. But that wasn’t the reason he got in the race.

Probably the only shot we had was to outright win Iowa. I think history will show that Obama spent $35 million there. Hillary spent about $27 million. We spent $7-8 [million]. We beat her, lost to him by about 8,000 votes. [Note: Trippi probably means 8 percentage points here, which translates to more like 15,000-20,000 votes.]  $8 million stood up pretty well. If we beat him in Iowa, the story would be different. The only other way the story would have been different is if she lost New Hampshire. If instead of winning by half a point [Note: Clinton won by about 2 percentage points], she lost by five. My guess is if she loses Iowa, New Hampshire, she would have probably lost Nevada, she would certainly have lost South Carolina--she lost so badly anyway. There’s an argument that there was a possibility we would be standing with Obama. Except for that half point in New Hampshire, she lost four straight. Those are all the kinds of things that happen in politics.

She teared up, she choked up. Whether that had anything to do with it or not, we had no control over it. We had no control over Obama rolling into New Hampshire saying “If you vote for me, I’m president.” That’s not the smartest thing to say if you’ve studied New Hampshire 101.


Were you surprised that, after the Philly debate, where Edwards really wailed on Hillary, that seemed to be the start of the Obama surge?

It happened every time. Go back and look. We take her on on lobbyist money, the next day’s headlines are “Obama-Hillary clash on campaign finance.” The press just wanted to just see everything through the Hillary-Barack lens. Particularly the South Carolina debate, where he called her a Wal-Mart board-member and she said, “slumlord.” I think by all accounts we won that one. There were definitely three people in that debate--we really engaged hard in that thing. The next day, every single headline was “Clinton-Obama.” On television in particular, “Clinton-Obama.” We weren’t even at that debate.


Did Edwards and Obama ganging up on her in the New Hampshire debate help Hillary win New Hampshire?

Nah. There’s a lot of, “Let’s go back and look at that,” everyone remembers it. But the dial test showed that to be disastrous debate for her. The dial test showed us winning. If the dial test could speak, Edwards would be president. We won just about every single debate by that. Also the coverage--it’s, what, 30 seconds, 18 seconds played over and over. One thing we’re seeing is the effect of cable--the same thing over and over again for 48 hours.


What about kind of going after Hillary after she teared up?

I was there. He in my view in no way shape or form [intended to pile on]. He said it, meant it in the context [of the question that was asked]. We talked, like, minutes before that. He was like, “I don’t want to talk about this at all.” It was not even “I don’t even want to comment about it.” One of them asked him something, “Don’t you think a commander in chief, yada yada, a commander in chief needs to be strong.” He wasn’t baited into it, but [the question kind of led him there].

[Unprompted, Trippi pivots to the Democrats’ debate in California on Thursday night.]

One of the reasons Obama has to be worried about the California debate is that suddenly there’s a celebration going on about how no matter who wins the Democratic nomination, there’s going to be big change. Who the hell’s spinning that? The Clinton campaign’s spinning that line. That’s a huge danger for Barack Obama. The Edwards campaign helped define Clinton as the status quo candidate in this race. Left to that definition, the change candidate would win this thing. The Clinton campaign understands that. That’s why they’re being so, as they always are, so damn efficient. Everyone understands now that, no matter who wins, it’s big change. The Obama campaign let that stand. All the way through the California debate, he never challenged her, never said she was status quo. You can already see the problem with us being out. Think about what Edwards would have done--there’s no way that would have stood. I’m not getting into their debate strategy. The whole thing is a very dangerous position for Obama to be in. If they’re both change candidates, why not vote for her?

In Iowa, we were spending months talking about her being the status quo candidate. Women in Iowa, were saying, “You know, she is [status quo]. I’m not voting for her.” She lost women. Lost white women in Iowa. The reason she lost them is because, over that whole period, white women in Iowa were seeing Edwards talk every day, we’re making the case. They come to believe that she’s carrying Washington’s water, not theirs. In New Hampshire we only have five days. We didn’t spend a ton of time in New Hampshire. All these women are going to vote for her, they don’t know about her taking lobbyists’ money. We only do a mild kind of push back, one time in the debate. She is a change candidate in New Hampshire.

All the way to South Carolina, they’re doing the old stuff. They’re raising the race thing, innuendo. But what is that? The old garbage, not change. Whenever she’s the change candidate, she kicks butt. When she’s status quo, politics as usual, taking the money, she not only doesn’t win, she gets clobbered. So, now--guess what? I don’t know what’s going to happen Tuesday, we’ll see. It’s not good to let her be the change candidate.

On Hispanics, I didn’t know how he was going to undo what had been baked in cake in Nevada about his appeal to Latinos. There’s no better name in the party [to help him with that] than Ted Kennedy. The Kennedy name, particularly Ted. Look at Massachusetts. He was 38 points down. Now he’s got Kennedy, Kerry, Patrick. He’s got a real chance. He can win. No way he can win California without a big shift in the Latino vote. If he could somehow pull out California and Massachusetts, he could be right back in it. If she wins California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Arkansas, what states is he going to win? Illinois and Georgia? Then where?  Alabama? Then where? She’s way ahead in Tennessee, Oklahoma. You know what I’m saying?

He’s got a good set of states coming up. February 9, Louisiana. He should do well in Nebraska and the Virgin Islands. I don’t know if Nebraska is a primary or a caucus. If it’s a caucus, he has a shot. [Note: It is.] The twelfth, you’ve got Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, where Doug Wilder was governor. So he could sweep those. He could be right back in it. The door slammer could be March 4: Ohio and Texas on the same day. So, she starts, has a great Super Tuesday, but it appears he’s coming back because of Louisiana, the Virgin Islands, Virginia, D.C., Maryland. Then does she slam the door shut in Texas and Ohio? I don’t know. Texas is a tough one for me. I don’t know which one they [the Obama campaign] go for. It’s not a natural place for either one. Ohio--she’s got Governor Strickland. I’m not in any way saying Obama’s in deep, deep trouble. But what would make me worry about potentially being in trouble, is if suddenly he’s running against a change candidate instead of a status quo candidate.

On the other hand, a lot of people watched that debate and said, “Well, what are they talking about saying he doesn’t have enough experience? He looks pretty good to me.” He sits there for two hours, debates her on Iraq, and sounds as strong as he did on it, as correct as he did on it. The two of them debated health care, that went on for 35, 40 minutes. He did fine. At the end of the debate, a whole lot of people who heard he’s not ready, that he didn’t know enough, are scratching their heads saying, “What the hell’s that about? He did just fine, Martha.”

He won and scored points on the issues that he needed to. The big doubt about him--he answered it. That debate helped him big time. The big doubt about her--that she’s status quo--I think he could have pulled off both things, and proved that. He disproved “I’m not ready” by basically standing with her for a few hours and not blowing it. I’m not being crass. He didn’t have any gaffes. He did really well. That helps him. Only thing is, it’s clear that she helped herself by moving so aggressively to define the race as a change candidate. She can let him quietly keep answering the experience question, and she’ll beat him. I’m not sure he can let her move to the change part and beat her.

You didn’t get any Clinton fatigue watching that debate. She accomplished what she had to, brilliantly. I think Obama accomplished a lot, too. Given where things were, Clinton fatigue, etc., there was a big opening for him to say, “Wait a minute. Let’s not get carried away here on change.” Almost with a joke. You don’t have to do it meanly. Had I been choreographing Obama, I would have done, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa--it depends on what your definition of change is,” if that wasn’t too cute. It was a missed opportunity. Given how close this thing’s likely to be, knowing what you’re up against, I wouldn’t miss that opportunity.


What about that debate in South Carolina, where Edwards started hitting Obama? Obama looked almost surprised that Edwards would start attacking him.

I would say a couple things here. When you look at the actual result, it sure as hell didn’t do Obama any damage. Remember in South Carolina, what we had to do is--we needed to take white women from her. And that--the way to do that was to fight both of them, particularly him, on economic stuff.

There are a lot of debates where it works out that you get the questions you wanted to get asked. For some reason, when he got asked a question it was, “If this comes up, make sure you say this about Obama. When this comes up, say this about her.” The way the moderators asked the question, it loaded up on Obama.

The other thing is that, in my own view, that was the first week where we had really thought long and hard about getting out of the race. We didn’t talk about it between New Hampshire and Nevada. After Nevada, John Edwards, none of us, the people working for him, wanted to go to his home state and get four percent. Going into that last debate, we had a long talk that day about maybe getting out before South Carolina, after the debate. My own personal view is that he went into that debate saying, “Damn it. I may be getting out tomorrow. You’re going to know I was here.” You don’t know what’s going on mentally. That’s why I told him that night that he came back. I’ve never been as proud of anybody as I was for what he did that night.

He went into that debate believing he was going to get out of the race. He didn’t pull punches. He stood there, talked about the things he believed in. He didn’t roll over for Barack, for her. Damn it, Clinton was going to know he was there. Barack was going to know he was there. People were going to know.

It was the tonic he needed to wake up the next morning and say, “Screw you, I’m not getting out of here.” Even folks in the campaign, some of the people said, “We don’t want you to get hurt by getting destroyed here.” There were people saying that. It was pretty unanimous. It wasn’t unanimous that he would get out, but no one was saying you shouldn’t think about getting out. We didn’t want to get four or five points in South Carolina. Go do this debate. The debate prep was during the Giants-Green Bay game. That’s what so blew me away. The campaign had actually spent the day talking about urging him to think hard about getting out. We had no polling. We were watching the game. During the boring part, he would say, “What should I say about this?” It wasn’t the best debate prep we ever had in our lives. He goes in there, it was sheer who John Edwards is. We had that debate. This was a guy who walked into that debate, saying “People are going to know I’m here.” The next day he said, “I hear what you guys are saying, but I’m going to stay here and fight for every vote.”


Is there any way this guy could endorse Hillary after being so tough on her between August and January?

I don’t know. I know--I really think he respects her. There are different things about each of them. I think that--I certainly don’t see him endorsing either one of them in the near term. I think, obviously, each of them would love [to have it]. They would work it. But I don’t see him doing it in the near term. I’m not sure. In the long term, who knows? This thing could break one way or the other relatively quickly. I couldn’t predict that.

Noam Schieber is a senior editor at The New Republic.