The burning question in the minds of top Democratic political leaders here: Who is really running John Kerry’s campaign?
The more relevant question: Is any one person in charge of the senator’s organization? Veteran Democratic strategist Tony Coelho, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign with an iron fist in its early months, raised this question last week in an interview with cbsnews.com, when he said Kerry’s campaign was in disarray, weakened by bickering and turf wars, with no heavyweight at the top to shape and direct its message.
Stories about Kerry’s chaotic campaign, which has undergone three staff shakeups since the primaries, have circulated for months. But Coelho is the first to go public with an insider’s view.
“There is nobody in charge, and you have these two teams that are generally not talking to each other,” the longtime party adviser said. “Here are two groups that have never gotten along and have fought, and it is a lot over money.”
Democratic consultant Bob Shrum is the highly paid senior strategist who ruled the roost until Kerry brought in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s chief of staff, Mary Beth Cahill, to be his campaign manager and bring some order to his bickering staff. Shrum is described as “a control freak” who speaks only to Kerry. Cahill has the title of manager but is really an administrator, not a strategic political thinker.
“Our problem here is a national message,” says Coelho, who maintains close contacts with key Kerry advisers and national party leaders around the country. There isn’t one, he says.
“You need a campaign boss, somebody who says ‘Shut up, we are going to work this out.’ Not someone who can go around to Kerry, and that’s Shrummy’s forte,” he said, referring to Shrum.
Earlier this month, with his polls in a nosedive following the GOP’s convention, Kerry ordered yet another shakeup, bringing in John Sasso, a longtime adviser who managed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign until he resigned in the wake of a news leak that drove rival Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware from the race.
Sasso is now said to be Kerry’s new senior message guru who has the senator’s ear and his confidence, though he has not been given any higher title. He brought in several of Bill Clinton’s senior White House advisers, including former press secretaries Joe Lockhart and Mike McCurry.
The result, after three messy public shakeups, is a cast of dozens of warriors but no real chief — sending disturbing signals that Kerry cannot put together a disciplined, well-run campaign organization.
To some this may seem like inside baseball, but independent analysts say it gets noticed by voters and shapes their view of the candidate.
“The American people are not asleep,” said political analyst Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution. “They’ve been following this.”
“People don’t change their staff when things are going well,” Hess said. “What is strange of course is that Kerry knew he was going to be the nominee of this party since early March. He knew what was needed and somehow he wasn’t able to do that to his own satisfaction earlier.”
Nominees have changed staffs in midstream before, but few have done so at the beginning of the general election. Reagan in 1980 and Clinton in 1992 had their teams in place early. George W. Bush’s team was chosen two years ago.
“Once you replace your staff it is because you are dissatisfied with your present staff and you create all sorts of internal problems,” Hess says. “New people working with holdovers. Old staffers who fear they will get the axe next. New people who need to be quick studies. There is no longer any time for trial and error.”
Coelho’s harsh but honest critique of Kerry’s ever-changing campaign organization has spread through Democratic political circles like wildfire, triggering backroom talk that their party’s nominee doesn’t have a firm grip on his own campaign.
Few Democrats are willing to talk publicly about Coelho’s brutal take on the Kerry campaign, but party adviser Donna Brazile thinks his remarks were “a cheap shot and a low blow,” especially his push for Sasso to take over Cahill’s job.
“I think it is sexist because a woman is running it,” she told me, adding that she ran into similar criticism when she took over the Gore campaign after Coelho resigned because of ill health. “Mary Beth is very much in charge of that campaign, and she’s going to continue to run that campaign.”
Presidential candidates must pass many tests before voters are willing to put them in charge of the country’s government. One of them is being able to put together a smoothly run, problem-free campaign organization that instills confidence in his ability to be commander in chief.
So far, John Kerry is failing that test.