Interview with David Plouffe

Interview with David Plouffe

By John King, USA - September 13, 2010


OBAMA: My campaign manager, David Plouffe.


The unsung hero of this campaign, who built the best -- the best political campaign I think in the history of the United States of America.


KING: That was election night, 2008. At times seems like it was light years ago. We're now 50 years from the 2010 midterms, and as this weekend's "Los Angeles Times" put it, the Obama coalition, blacks, women, Latinos, young voters and suburbanites is, "frayed and frazzled." Great time to go one-on-one with the president's former campaign manager, David Plouffe who joins us from out in Sacramento.

Let me ask you before -- I've got some policy questions and some politics questions, but it does seem like light years ago, in many ways, does it not?

DAVID PLOUFFE, OBAMA '08 CAMPAIGN MANAGER: It sure does. But, you know, I think that, you know, we have an election right in front of us, as you said, and what we're trying to work as hard as we can to convince those people who participated in '08. And you're going to have a big drop-off. Listen, we had almost 140 million people vote in the presidential, you're have 80 million vote, now. This is a historic problem. But I do sense some intensification in the last couple of weeks around activism and volunteerism, and I am hopeful that can translate into better Democratic turnout.

KING: Let's go through some of that. One of the ways you can energize people is to give them a good policy fight to carry into their political activism, and yet there's a debate on the left of your party. As you well know, many people who think the president hasn't done enough to try to spur economic growth. Robert Kuttner, a man you know well, a liberal economist, writing today in the "Huffington Post," says this, "Send Congress more emergency recovery legislation, job creation, aid to the states, extended unemployment benefits and dare Republicans to vote against it. It doesn't matter if a few misguided Democrats oppose you, too. The main blockage of a stronger recovery program is the Republican Party."

How would you answer those on the left who say the president is not doing enough stimulus, enough government intervention in the economy?

PLOUFFE: Listen, obviously people are going to have their points of views and we need all the great ideas we can, obviously, in the economic situation we're in.

But I was in Iowa yesterday -- I'll be in Sacramento tonight -- talking to a lot of people who are involved in the elections, and I think people are very proud of what we've done on the economy.

And you know I saw some of your program earlier, the debate on the tax cuts. This is really galvanizing Democrats. I mean, basically, the Republican Party is saying, we want to spend another $700 billion -- almost as much as the Recovery Act, by the way -- to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires.

As opposed to the president and a lot of Democrats who are saying, let's give them to the middle class. And this is going to be a big debate in the coming weeks. It's a very important debate for the country.

And listen. Essentially what that says to the American people is the Republican economic policies, which are a big contributor of the recession, that's all they're offering. I mean, they're quite clear.

Every time you have a Republican on your program and you asked them what's their plans going to be, they either don't answer it or they say we're going to go back to what we did before which led the country this close to a great depression.

KING: And so then I'll ask you this. You have that just about right. There are -- but there are some Democrats, as you know, who don't want the president to raise taxes in the middle of a recession, even though the president ran on this, saying the Bush tax cuts would expire and he would let them expire except for the middle class families.

Is this such an important policy point that even if you have eight, 10, 12, 15 House Democrats who say, if you don't help me here, I'm going to lose my seat, that that's acceptable? That the deficit and not extending those tax cuts for wealthy Americans is so important that you wouldn't make a political compromise?

PLOUFFE: Well, listen, there were a few Democrats who devoted for the original Bush tax cuts in the first place. And those Democrats that have a different point of view will make their case. But, you know, this was, as the president, I think probably for every day of 700 days during that long campaign you mentioned talked about this. This was very clear.

And this is a fundamental difference. Eighty percent of these tax cuts that Republicans want to give a go to millionaires. And listen, everyone is going to get a tax cut. The question is, the president and a lot of Democrats wanted to end at $250,000 worth of income.

So -- and, you know, you hear some of the Republicans talk about -- although Boehner was honest about this yesterday. We're only talking about 3 percent of small businesses. Most of those are big lawyers -- I mean the small businesses that they're talking about are small businesses like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and they're a media empire.

So the distinction here is clear. And again, it's a -- it's a trip down memory lane. These are the policies that led us off the cliff in the first place. So you've got one idea, the president, the Democrats saying, tax cuts for the middle class, for small businesses.

The Republicans, who like to lecture us on fiscal discipline, who created these deficits in the first place, are more than comfortable giving $700 billion in tax cuts, largely to millionaires and billionaires, and they won't tell you they can pay for it. Even worse, they say they shouldn't have to.

So this is a big difference. And I think it helps crystallize for people that there is a choice here. There's a choice between going back to the economic policies that led us off a cliff, or we can move forward, no one is satisfied with where we are today economically, but we're moving in the right direction.

KING: I want to -- you wrote a book after the campaign and then you updated it a bit to focus a bit on the 2010 midterm elections and in that update, you wrote this. "We are blessed with incompetent opposition. The Republican Party has failed, even in a time of perceived weakness for Democrats, to instill any confidence in the American people or in independent voters in particular."

That is your position, David Plouffe, but I wanted to show you the numbers from our most recent CNN polling. You say the Republicans have not inspired any confidence in independent voters in particular, and yet when we ask independents, how will you vote for Congress this year, 62 percent of independents now say they will vote Republican.

If the Republican Party hasn't inspired confidence in them, has the president and the Democratic Party just driven them away?

PLOUFFE: Well, listen, independent voters, particularly in recent times, do fluctuate a lot from election to election. And you know that's a national number. I see a lot different numbers in states and districts.

But the point is, none of that vote is really based on them improving their image. And listen, what's going to happen in Delaware tomorrow -- whether Castle wins or loses -- is a big problem for the Republican Party.

In the short-term, I think it can help us remind Democrats, who might not be inclined to vote, and independents who are still gettable that this is the Republican Party. That Palin, Limbaugh, Beck and that wing of the party is in control.

And if you look down the line in elections, you know, even in '12, where you're going to have 60, 70 million more voters, I can tell you, most of that increase is not people who are part of that extreme right wing.

They're going to be more moderate independents, a lot more Democrats, as you mentioned, minorities and younger voters. So it's a real problem. And I think something that is fascinating to watch.

Now that being said, the Republicans are going to come out to vote in big numbers. There's no question about that. And I don't think we can expect that to abate. What we have to do is go out there and make a case to the independents. I think a lot of independents haven't yet focused on the choice.

Our candidates are starting to lay that in front of them. We have to make this a choice. And unlike '94 -- I mean I was out running a Senate campaign in '94 in Delaware, actually. And listen, voters tuned us out at some point. They had decided.

That's not where they are right now. Because, again, this isn't a budding love affair in the offing with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. They're still distrustful of the Republicans. So we have to go out there and have conversations with voters and say, remember those economic policies that hurt you and your family and hurt the economy?

That's all they're offering. And of course we have a lot more work to do, but we're on the right track here.

KING: I want you to listen to a voter we encountered last week. You talk about going back to the Obama coalition, essentially trying to grab them by the lapel and say, look, maybe you don't think Congress votes matter or governors don't matter, but this one matters.

I want you to listen to Keisha Sails. We met her in Braddock, Pennsylvania. The town has been devastated in the recession. She's an African-American woman, was very excited about Barack Obama, and she is dispirited now.


KEISHA SAILS, BRADDOCK, PA., RESIDENT: These people come from good homes or good backgrounds or had houses and land and property, and was able to do the things that they wanted to do, you know? But they don't care. They really don't care.

So I think that's why the people around here are, like, I'm just going to do me. I'm going to live my life and that's it. You know? Nobody else matters.


KING: How do you convince her it matters?

PLOUFFE: Well, and I understand and appreciate her frustration. And that of millions of Americans, obviously. And I think what we have to do is try and reach these voters one on one, have a conversation between a neighbor, a family member.

And once -- you know, first of all, explain what we've been trying to do here. That while the economy is not where any of us would like, it is moving in the right direction. But more importantly than that, is what's motivating the president and a lot of people in his party, which is, unlike the policies that led us into this mess, and the Republicans want to offer again, it's squarely focused on the middle class.

People trying to get into the middle class. And so we have to -- on tax cuts, on help for small business, on the new jobs that are being created in the energy sector. We have to say we are trying and that there is an alternative here.

So we have to do two things. We have to educate them about all the things we've tried to do. And I think that can be impactful. I find it to be. And then secondly, talk about an alternative.

But there's no doubt this is going to be hard. I mean we have tough atmospherics, we have a tough economy. In 2008, I can tell you, the turnout that we got amongst younger voters, minority voters, it was really hard to do. It just didn't happen.

It took a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of focus. And we in good Democratic campaigns are trying to bring that to bear. We're not going to replicate what we did in '08, but if we can do a little bit better than projected, we're going to win some close races that right now looks like we might lose by a narrow margin.

KING: Let me ask you this in closing, and I suspect I'm about to fail at this attempt. But I'm going to ask you to answer this as David Plouffe, political strategist, the guy who's run a lot of campaigns and understands why politicians do the things they do and say the things they say. Not as a partisan Democrat.

Newt Gingrich quoted in the "National Review Online" this weekend, says, "What if Obama is so outside our comprehension that only if you understand Kenyan anti-colonial behavior can you begin to piece together his actions? That is the most accurate predictive model for his behavior."

What is Newt Gingrich trying to get at there?

PLOUFFE: Well, you know two words that come to mind are "sad" and "reprehensible." I mean, you know. I was working in Congress when he was speaker and disagreed with just about everything he did.

But, you know, you got the sense there was some principle involved. He's clearly a very intelligent person. And to see him doing -- it makes me think, by the way, he's probably pretty sure he's going to run for president because he's clearly trying to appeal to the folks that are supporting Christine O'Donnell in Delaware tomorrow.

And you know, whether he believes there's a perceived weakness there or not, I'll leave that to him to answer. But it has no place in our politics. He knows better. He's made comments like this in the past around the Islamic center in New York, for instance, that are really not the Newt Gingrich I think a lot of us remembered.

So I think it's very sad. I think it reprehensible. It may have an audience during the Iowa caucuses next year or, you know, in New Hampshire or South Carolina. But I don't think that's where most Americans are.

And you know, you ought to ask other Republicans out there whether they agree with that. You know, maybe they're in so -- they are so -- have to pledge so much (INAUDIBLE) to the Tea Party, to Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, et cetera that they won't answer. But I think if they answered honestly they would say that those comments are outrageous.

KING: David Plouffe, we appreciate your time tonight and we hope you'll let us check in with you a little closer to Election Day to see if you can do the work you promised you were going to try to do tonight.

PLOUFFE: Thanks, John.

KING: David, take care.


John King, USA

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