Washington Prowler

Emergency Operation

But this time it’s Clinton to the rescue as Kerry goes under the knife. Plus: Democratic bedside manners. Also: Big Labor’s last hurrah.

By 9.7.04

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WHOSE PARTY?
According to a former Clinton staffer, the late Saturday phone call between John Kerry and Bill Clinton was the first extensive conversation the two men had had since Kerry won the nomination. Former Clinton senior staffers Paul Begala and Joe Lockhart brokered the call, while another former Clinton staffer now on the Kerry payroll leaked word of the conversation to the New York Times.

As reported by the Prowler last week, it isn't entirely clear how the staff shakeup affects some of the current Kerry advisers. A week ago, it appeared that Lockhart would be traveling extensively with Kerry on the campaign trail. But on Sunday it was decided that Kerry's longtime friend and adviser John Sasso would leave his post at the DNC to travel with Kerry. Lockhart, while doing some travel, is expected to stay in Washington working out the kinks in the campaign's press and rapid response operation.

"Kerry doesn't know these people the way he knows his longtime aides," says a Kerry adviser in Washington of the Clinton crew. "He has talked to them in the past, but hasn't worked with them. Really, this is a trust thing on Kerry's part. Kerry is basically handing over the entire operation to Clinton, who is now saying, 'Shut up, do what I say, and I will get you elected.'"

CLINTON HAD BEEN STANDING on the sidelines for several months, quietly -- at least for him -- observing the Kerry campaign. There has been tension between the Kerry and Clinton camps, if only because it was made to clear to Kerry early on after locking up the nomination that he would not be able to make major changes to the party, which Bill Clinton still controls, thanks to his placement of key staffers at the Democratic National Committee and the party's national fundraising apparatus and network.

But according to the former Clinton staffer, Clinton plugged himself back in after several former advisers -- Lockhart and Paul Begala -- began speaking more frequently with Kerry in the past month, and as Lockhart took the step of becoming a full-time adviser.

"The opening came when Kerry lost complete confidence in [Mary Beth] Cahill and [Bob] Shrum," says a Kerry staffer. "They are in the room during meetings, but you sense that Kerry is just being polite. It's the Lockharts and Begalas that now hold sway and have the upper hand."

Says a former Kerry adviser: "It has be just killing him on some level. Six months ago, it looked like he could win this thing without Clinton and maybe become a leading figure in the party, not on Clinton's level, but up there. Now he knows that if he wins, it's not because of anything he did. It's because he was humbled into basically letting Bill Clinton save his bacon. That has to burn bigtime."

Meanwhile, the work of refocusing the Kerry campaign continues almost constantly. On Monday, Kerry closed off his portion of the plane to all press and non-campaign staffers to huddle with advisers and work on the new message for the rest of the day.

"It's a matter of bringing him up to speed," says a Kerry adviser. "For the next two weeks it's going to be the Clinton people telling him what to do, then Kerry turning to people like Sasso for reassurance that it's the right thing for him to do. It's just going to be odd."

ACCORDING TO THE FORMER staffer, Clinton was not particularly irked by Kerry's seeming public lack of interest in having the Clintons front and center in his campaign. Clinton was satisfied with the knowledge that most Democrats and political players knew that he controlled the party. But in the past few weeks Clinton had also reached the decision that if Kerry were to lose, and perhaps lose badly, Clinton would be blamed for not making the effort for a fellow Democrat in what people even in his own party acknowledge is a critical election for Democrats.

Some of the people who lobbied Clinton came from organized labor, which this year is essentially financing the entire Democratic campaign. According to an AFL-CIO lobbyist, Clinton was told two weeks ago that this election was not about his reputation but rather the survival of organized labor in the United States.

"Clinton was told -- and it's something that he knew anyway, we think -- that four more years of Republican control on Capitol Hill and in the White House could weaken organized labor to the point where we wouldn't be able to help Democrats the way are now," says the AFL-CIO lobbyist. "That's why it was critical to plug Clinton back."

GET WELL SOON
Incidentally, all the major political candidates placed calls to former President Bill Clinton on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, wishing him well. According to a former staffer, Clinton was enjoying the attention. He even enjoyed the phone call from a senior Kerry adviser inquiring about whether a photo-op would be doable after Clinton's bypass surgery with Kerry at the hospital.

"Half the time these guys can't run fast enough or far enough away from the president," said the former Clinton staffer about the photo-op request. "Now they practically want to climb into his hospital bed with him. But you know, Clinton is such a creature of politics, he would probably do it."

SHIP OF FOOLS
On the Friday morning Kerry campaign surrogates conference call last week, it was business as usual, at least when it came to topics for discussion.

New Kerry frontman Joe Lockhart found himself discussing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, call them "pathological liars" and straw men that President Bush was controlling and hiding behind.

Rep. Dick Gephardt was snorting and slammed the president for talking about tax reform and for his creation of an economy that was squeezing the middle class, claiming the president had no standing to do so.

This from the man who believes that middle class families in America earning $25,000 a year in household income.

Both Gephardt and Lockhart glossed over the jobs report that showed more than 250,000 jobs added in the past three months, which was supposedly the topic of the call.

Perhaps folks in Kerry's campaign were too busy making other phone calls at the time to focus on the issues. Rumors inside the Kerry camp late last week had Lockhart and others talking to both James Carville and Paul Begala about coming on board the campaign for the next eight weeks, if not full-time then at least part-time. Both are employees of CNN, as well as other private clients.

Both donors and senior Democratic National Committee officials have been lobbying Kerry to bring the two former senior Clinton advisers on board in a more visible way, despite the fact that both men have been offering advice to Kerry privately for some time. Begala, especially, has been a name floated in recent days, though Begala's role would mean that either Lockhart of campaign spokesman Stephanie Cutter would have to adjust their duties.

"Kerry has probably done about as much as he can publicly do to his campaign," said a Kerry adviser. "Any more and it looks like you're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and it keeps the story alive. I guarantee you that within ten days, we are going to be reading stories in the New York Times about how well our campaign is running. It's just inevitable."

Maybe not. No sooner did they announce that they were getting tough on Bush than the Kerry campers began walking away from their own candidate's late night diatribe in Ohio on Thursday night/Friday morning. "That was a one-time thing, or maybe an occasional thing," said the Kerry adviser. "We aren't going to be that negative on the stump all the time. We couldn't be."

When asked why Kerry kept insisting that Republicans had directly challenged his patriotism, when in fact they had not, the adviser said, "We don't see it that way. Republicans took nuanced votes by Senator Kerry and out and out lied about them. We don't play that game. No sensible person with a brain could have looked at that orgy of hate in New York and not heard Kerry's patriotism challenged."

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