Over the weekend, we learned that David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama's presidential campaign, will be returning to Washington to oversee the Democrats' efforts to avoid an electoral disaster in the fall.
This is a very good idea. It helps to have one person who is clearly in charge of all their campaign efforts, and Plouffe is the best person for the job. Even before he designed what could well be the most skillfully executed presidential campaign in history (with the caveat that the most recent successful campaign always seems to have been the most skillfully executed campaign in history), Plouffe was regarded within campaign circles as one of the sharpest operatives Democrats had. And as someone who has previously run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and been involved in races at all levels all over the country, Plouffe has the knowledge and experience to do the job.
Perhaps most important, because he has the president's ear and is a famous person whom others see on television, when he picks up the phone and tells a House candidate or a Senate race campaign manager what to do, chances are pretty good they'll listen to him. That being the case, the chance the Democrats will have a unified strategy for the campaign is now much higher.
But if I were able to make a request of our nation's political reporters, it would be this: Ignore David Plouffe. Because when reporters start admiring campaign operatives too much, it turns them (the reporters) stupid.
The danger is that reporters could start treating Plouffe the way they did Karl Rove. During the Bush years, reporters convinced themselves that Rove had almost supernatural powers of political expertise and manipulation. They then decided that every time he spoke to them, his words should be treated like an utterance of the Oracle at Delphi, accepted, marveled at, repeated again and again.
The one thing they never seemed to get was that Rove understood this and tailored his comments accordingly. So he would say, "We're going to win this next election by a landslide," and reporters would write stories saying, "Karl Rove predicts a landslide victory," never seeming to realize that he said what he did not because he believed it but because he wanted that story to be written. To take just one example, you might remember that just before the 2006 election -- the one in which Democrats won back both houses of Congress -- Rove predicted Republican victories, because, he told an interviewer, "You are entitled to your math and I'm entitled to THE math." A long string of erroneous predictions and political missteps on Rove's part never seemed to dent his image as the most masterful operative who ever lived.
Though Plouffe's press has been admiring, he hasn't gotten anywhere near the attention Rove did. And he hasn't shown the interest in self-aggrandizement that Rove had. But if he wanted to, he could probably play the same game. It's not just about setting expectations -- it's about convincing reporters that because you have access to secret knowledge, and your level of skill and brilliance is beyond their imagining, they should just accept what you say about the present and future and pass it on to their readers and viewers. And the more that insider knowledge seems secret and magical, the more interested reporters get in it.
I love insider strategy stories as much as the next guy. But we just got through a year-long health care debate, at the end of which most of the public had only a fuzzy idea of what the issue was really about. Now we're going to have a potentially momentous election in nine months. Wouldn't it be something if political reporters spent that time talking about all the critical issues the elections ought to turn on?
-- Paul Waldman