A Campaign Postmortem at Harvard

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty

Rick Davis, left, and David Axelrod

In most public settings, political campaign managers are as likely to receive an ovation as short-order cooks. Never mind that no one is likely to recognize them on the street. Their whole reason for being is to make someone else look good. Their job is to take the blame when things go wrong, and to stay behind the curtains when things go well.

There is one exception for presidential campaign managers: since 1972, Harvard University's Institute of Politics has held a postelection summit where wine is served, the tables have white linen, and the strategic minds behind politics are invited to share their tales from the trenches. The summit is almost entirely off the record. Reporters must sign legal-looking documents swearing to describe no part of it for months, until the university gets around to publishing an edited transcript of the proceedings in book form. (See TIME's top 10 political lines of 2008.)

There is, however, one event during the two-day summit that is on the record. That took place on Thursday night, when several hundred students, scholars and scribblers burst into applause as the minds behind the John McCain and Barack Obama campaigns took the stage for a conversation provocatively titled "War Stories: Inside Campaign 2008." (See behind-the-scenes pictures from Super Tuesday.)

Obama's senior aide, David Axelrod, wore earth tones, a tweed coat and no tie, while his campaign manager, David Plouffe, arrived in a proper dark suit with a glittering pink tie. McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, brought a knit blue tie (and wry sarcasm), while his chief pollster, Bill McInturff, sat beside Davis in a white shirt with an open collar. "Here we are in the year that we elected the first African-American President, and I get to share the stage with four white guys," joked the moderator, Gwen Ifill, a correspondent for PBS who was still hobbling on a bad ankle from a spill she took before moderating the vice-presidential debate in October.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the men entertained questions both thematic and technical, offering insight on the campaign strategies without exactly revealing anything that might reflect poorly on their current or former employers. "One of the things I have always believed is, presidential campaigns are unique. They are like MRIs for the soul. You can't hide who you are," said Axelrod at the outset, a line that was either an honest observation or a subtle swipe at McCain.

"This was a television campaign. Everything that happened was exaggerated. Everything was focused on," observed Davis, in what was either a mild lament for the accelerating news cycle or buried criticism at his campaign's ability to keep internal discussions secret.

At one point, Ifill asked the McCain team to name the greatest Faustian bargain it had to make. Davis and McInturff both mentioned the burden that McCain endured because of his support for the continued military effort in Iraq, an adventure that American voters soured on years ago. Axelrod chimed in to disagree. "There is no doubt that the war was a complicated issue," he said before adding, "I would argue that the biggest Faustian bargain McCain made was switching his position on the [2001 and 2003] tax cuts ... He essentially tied himself to the Bush economic nostrums."

Axelrod contended that the general-election campaign was decided between Sept. 15, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, and Sept. 26, the night of the first presidential debate. During that time, Axelrod said, Obama established himself as a "safe change" candidate. McCain, meanwhile, announced a suspension of his campaign and a plan to suspend the debate (which was later aborted), and showed an underwhelming effort in his return to Washington to support the federal bailout package — which led him to cancel an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. Davis, who approached the event with humor, admitted, "The most damaging thing was pissing off Letterman."

Davis also made a revelation of sorts. "Look, the last thing I thought I was going to be doing in September was lobbying Congress," he said. Davis, who normally makes a living as a registered lobbyist, had met with members of Congress to talk about the bailout. But at the time, the McCain campaign maintained that the meetings were informational and did not constitute lobbying.

Asked about the challenge of running against the first major African-American candidate, Davis minimized the issue. "I don't think John McCain or our campaign would have conducted ourselves any other way regardless of who the opponent was," he said, appearing to contradict the assessment of the campaign's ad man, Fred Davis (no relation), who has described in other interviews an atmosphere of extreme caution over racial issues that hampered the campaign's message on topics like Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

McInturff contended that even as McCain chose not to engage the Wright issue out of principle, a more aggressive approach would have offered little upside. The demographic groups that McCain was losing in the polls, including voters between the ages of 18 and 30, were likely to be turned off by Wright attacks. The context of the entire campaign, McInturff said, was a national math that did not favor McCain at any point. He said he told the candidate that the "happy scenario" was for McCain to narrowly win the Electoral College and lose the popular vote by about 3 million. Because of this, McInturff advised McCain not to campaign in an overly divisive manner, lest the task of governing become nearly impossible.

Davis conceded that the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate was "risky" but maintained that risk was required by the dire national mood the Republicans faced. And Plouffe admitted that the introduction of the Rev. Wright problem caught the Obama team by surprise and represented a moment of "great peril" for the campaign. Everyone onstage complained about the political caricatures of Saturday Night Live — except for Ifill. "I got Queen Latifah, so I was happy about that," she said of her impersonator on the show.

Almost as suddenly as it had begun, the forum ended and the crowd again burst into applause. The campaign managers then walked through a steady rain to a nearby open bar, where they mingled with students and journalists. The conversation continued. However, once the alcohol started to flow freely, the ground rules changed. The events that followed — the comments made — were all officially off the record.

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