April 19, 2004


Kerry’s Consigliere: For the legendary strategist Bob Shrum, a lifetime in Democratic politics comes down to John Kerry and a final shot at the White House (Ryan Lizza, May 2004, The Atlantic Monthly)

As anyone who has worked closely with him or covered one of his campaigns can attest, his political skills are not limited to winning elections. Kerry's campaign offers just the latest example of his Rumsfeld-like mastery of bureaucratic maneuvering. "He is a savage infighter," one friend explains—skilled at conquering rivals within a campaign and consolidating power by taking his arguments directly to the candidate. Last fall aides who had prepared a speech to launch the campaign were stunned to learn that Shrum had materialized at Kerry's Boston home and stayed up with him through the night, rewriting it to his own liking. "He plays 'capture the candidate' better than anyone," a former Kerry aide says.
Not surprisingly, Shrum has attracted more than his share of enemies, whose criticism is startling even by Washington standards. "He wreaks havoc in campaigns," says a senior Gore aide who clashed with him in 2000. Yet despite Shrum's reputation for being quarrelsome, disruptive, and prone to tantrums, Kerry eagerly enticed him to join the campaign. As a close friend of Shrum's counters when asked about the trail of invective that follows the consultant, "Why is it that almost every major candidate for the Democratic nomination since 1972 has wanted Bob Shrum to work for them? ... These are not dumb people." The Democratic strategist James Carville, who has worked with Shrum on five campaigns, adds, "I think he's getting a really bad rap."

Nevertheless, all the controversy has lately begun to catch up with Shrum—and not all of it is about his personality. At issue is whether he is as valuable as he is reputed to be or whether his populist message has become shopworn and ineffective. As far back as 1980 The Washington Post pointed out how often he failed: "Friends of Shrum's joke that he's had so many losers that he wouldn't know what to do with a winner." That year he was Ted Kennedy's chief speechwriter when the senator challenged Shrum's old ideological bête noire, Jimmy Carter. But Kennedy lost. By 1988 Shrum, now a full-service consultant, had graduated to Mario Cuomo, who never ran, and then signed on with Richard Gephardt in the primaries. Gephardt lost too. Shrum wound up working for Michael Dukakis's ill-fated general-election campaign. In 1992 his horse was Bob Kerrey. But Kerrey soon bowed out, and Shrum never managed to penetrate Bill Clinton's inner circle. In 2000 he was one of Al Gore's top advisers, with all-too-familiar results. At one point Shrum even attended a strategy meeting for the ultimate losing candidate, New Coke. [...]

In November he emerged as the dominant power in the campaign after an internal struggle led to the departure of Kerry's campaign manager, Jim Jordan. Shrum can expect to exert the leverage over Kerry that he lacked during his short tenure with Carter—aides whisper that the nominee talks to Shrum more than to anyone but his wife. The two already have a bond of trust, because Shrum rejuvenated Kerry's imperiled 1996 Senate campaign. "When you've gone through a near-death experience, you tend to hold on to those who helped get you through those moments," says Jim Margolis, who produces Kerry's television ads with Shrum. Another colleague adds, "To the extent that there is a Karl Rove in this operation, Karl is named Bob."
What is perhaps most fascinating about the coming election is that Shrum's trademark populism, which seemed so discordant just two years ago, will suddenly have renewed resonance. With much of the country passionately aligned against President Bush, the consummate Shrum villain if ever there was one, the sociological and political landscape may at last be hospitable to the consultant's steadfast world view. And a win for Kerry would bestow on Shrum the one thing that separates him from Karl Rove: credit for bringing a President to power.

If, however, Kerry loses, he will become the second patrician Democrat in two presidential elections to do so on populist themes of economic and class warfare. It's hard to see how Shrum's outsize reputation—and by extension the current direction of the Democratic Party—could possibly remain intact.

It's a mark of just how frozen in amber the Democratic Party is that Mr. Shrum, whose Ted Kennedy campaign was too far Left to win even the Democratic nomination in 1980, is running the same campaign in the general election of a far more conservative America a quarter century later. Karl Rove idolizes McKinley, but he doesn't base races on the tariff.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2004 3:48 PM

"To the extent that there is a Karl Rove in this operation, Karl is named Bob."

I have heard rumors that Rove had agents inside the Democratic Party, but I always thought they were conspiracy rants.

Posted by: jd watson at April 19, 2004 5:15 PM

"Why is it that almost every major candidate for the Democratic nomination since 1972 has wanted Bob Shrum to work for them? ... These are not dumb people."

Umm, he didn't work for Bill Clinton. Therefore his record is a jaw-dropping disaster, and his employers are indeed dumb people.

Posted by: brian at April 19, 2004 5:50 PM

I wish you were correct. Shrum did well by Gore though, and so I would rather operate under the assumption that he knows what he's doing.

Shrum is being dealt a bad hand with Kerry, who appears to have the potential of being a total disaster.

Posted by: h-man at April 19, 2004 6:56 PM

Well by Gore? A popular vice president lost in a time of peace and unprecedented prosperity.

Posted by: oj at April 19, 2004 7:16 PM

Bob Shrum kind of comes across as the Gene Mauch of presidential campaign managers, doesn't he? (Al Gore=1964 Phialdelphia Phillies; not sure what Kerry's going to end up as the equivalent of...)

Posted by: John at April 19, 2004 8:19 PM

The Mauch comparison is unfair to Shrum, but positively brutal to Kerry: the '64 Phillies were up by something like 19 games near the end of the season, and had one of the worst Septembers any team has had. At no time will Kerry lead by 19 points (I doubt he'll ever lead by half that figure) and I doubt his autumn will be much to write home about.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at April 19, 2004 9:29 PM

OK, you're right, but Gore was not an attractive candidate. As a matter of fact, he was a complete BOZO. You are right that there was prosperity, and peace (not unprecedented though), but when you say "popular", you take my breath away.
When I say Shrum did well, I mean like his candidate got the MOST VOTES which is not chopped liver.

Posted by: h-man at April 20, 2004 7:18 AM

I take back what I just said. Now that I think about it, in that particular race "most votes" was the same as chopped liver.

Posted by: h-man at April 20, 2004 7:23 AM


Don't forget, the conventional wisdom is that W is the bozo and Al Gore a genius.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2004 8:13 AM

>Don't forget, the conventional wisdom is
>that ... Al Gore [is] a genius.

So was Wile E Coyote when he took on Bugs Bunny.

Wile E Coyote. Super. Genius.

Posted by: Ken at April 20, 2004 12:54 PM

Wile E. Coyote's official IQ is 207, which is ten points higher than Einstein's. Fat lot of good it did him.

Al Gore's IQ is somewhat less.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at April 20, 2004 3:00 PM

Don't forget - Bush's SAT scores were higher. And he graduated from Harvard Business School; Gore left Yale Divinity School without an M. Div. (or whatever he was looking for). How quickly the media 'forgets'.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 20, 2004 10:48 PM