The A-Team

Unless you spent the summer orbiting with the Genesis space capsule, you know that John Kerry had a lousy August and a brutal early September. Thanks to the attacks of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the masterfully orchestrated Republican national convention -- aided and abetted by the right-wing media's power to keep stories alive beyond their sell-by date -- Kerry's unfavorable ratings shot skyward, while George W. Bush regained all the ground he'd lost over the summer and spring.

But Kerry's problems weren't all of the Republicans' making. Throughout the late summer, his communications operation was slow to respond to attacks -- and to seize opportunities to play offense. When Bush said of the war on terrorism, on the day the Republican convention was to open, “I don't think you can win it,” Kerry, Democratic strategists say, should have responded more forcefully. “Someone needed to be out there and say [to Kerry], ‘I know you're tired, but the president just said we can't win the war on terror,'” says one Democratic communications professional. Instead, Kerry stayed silent and stayed on vacation on Nantucket -- where he was photographed windsurfing in floral shorts. By the next day, the opportunity -- like so many for Kerry -- was lost; Bush had reversed himself and the media's attention was now absorbed by Rudy Giuliani's attacks on Kerry, and, later that evening, by Arnold Schwarzenegger's taunt of “girlie men.”

That's a pattern the campaign is determined to reverse. Already, new, more aggressive communications advisers helped Kerry turn a mysterious explosion in North Korea into a front-page New York Times story, framing Bush's response to nuclear proliferation by having their candidate call a Times reporter and give him exclusive quotes on the subject. For months, political analysts have said that the outcome of campaign 2004 would turn on external events. But as the campaign heads into the homestretch, it seems just as likely that it will turn on the skills of the campaigns' internal advisers.

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A campaign's communications operation is its most vital. All the policy making and idea generating in the world won't make a difference if a candidate can't formulate -- and defend -- a compelling narrative about himself (and an unflattering one about his opponent). George Stephanopoulos held the vital campaign post of communications director for Bill Clinton's winning 1992 bid, famously setting up a war room in summer 1992 to shake off the ghosts of the slow-to-respond Michael Dukakis campaign of '88. Voters would see “we weren't like Democrats in the past,” Stephanopoulos told Frontline in 2001, reflecting on the early days of the campaign. “They'd see that we were different -- not only because we were different on our ideas but because we fight back when we're hit.”

The memory of the Clinton war room hangs like a cloud over a campaign that dithered as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smeared Kerry. But Kerry has since revamped his communications operation, bringing in veterans Joe Lockhart, John Sasso, and Mike McCurry -- the A-Team -- in an effort to fight back when he's hit.

The shuffling of Kerry's communications team dates to 2003, and began, then as now, out of necessity. Kerry, trailing badly, ousted campaign manager Jim Jordan that September, which was followed shortly thereafter by the departure of campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs. To replace Jordan, Kerry brought in Mary Beth Cahill, the no-nonsense chief of staff to Senator Edward Kennedy. Cahill whipped the Kerry team into shape, focusing it like a laser on winning the contest in Iowa. And Cahill filled the campaign with her own team of Massachusetts operatives and friends from Capitol Hill, including former Kennedy communications director Stephanie Cutter to do the same for Kerry. Everything during primary season went according to plan, and the team emerged victorious to find an unusually unified party base, an outpouring of Democratic hard money, and a troubled incumbent President Bush.

Cahill brought on even more Capitol Hill veterans in key positions after the primaries ended. There was just one problem: Many of these people, like Cutter and Cahill herself, had never worked on a presidential campaign before. The problem was particularly acute in the campaign's communications operation, where members of the press noticed as early as April that things weren't running very smoothly. Cutter, in fairness, was overworked, charged with overseeing message as it related to everything from speechwriting to scheduling, in addition to being a spokeswoman. But experience was lacking. “No presidential campaign-level press secretary has been within 500 miles of Stephanie Cutter's office, until now,” snarked one Democratic insider after the shake-up.

Kerry was not unaware of the problems, and he expanded and altered the communications team over the spring and summer. He brought Cutter on the road with him and added former Democratic National Committee communications director Debra DeShong in June, plus Miles Lackey, John Edwards' former Senate chief of staff, who became Kerry's deputy campaign manager for policy and speechwriting. The slow-motion reorganization also brought on former Clinton speechwriter Terry Edmunds to replace previous speechwriting head Andrei Cherney, a former Al Gore staffer. Meanwhile, newcomers Phil Singer and Chad Clanton, the latter a protégé of James Carville and Paul Begala, took on active roles as campaign spokesmen. The team seemed to be jelling, and Kerry was leading in many polls.

Then came August. According to Democratic insiders, a number of Kerry's most essential senior staffers advised him against responding to the “Swift”-boat attacks. Kerry's instincts told him to respond. But, according to one insider, Cahill, Cutter, communications research whiz David Ginsberg, and pollster Mark Mellman all advised against responding out of concern for alienating swing voters in battleground states, who, polling data showed, were turned off by negative campaigning. So Kerry sat on his hands until steam started coming out of his ears.

And that's when Kerry finally brought on the A-Team. “This wasn't a coup. It wasn't a group of people who showed up one day and suddenly were in charge,” says an observer. “These people showed up at the Kerry campaign and took power because John Kerry wanted them to.”

Though much has been made of the Clinton connections of the new team, not all of these men are, in fact, Clintonistas. The Clintonistas were ideological proponents of “third way” politics; the A-Team's major unifying experience is that its members are seasoned political veterans, often known for their bare-knuckle, take-no-prisoners campaigning. Washington Democratic insiders and operatives have cheered their arrival, and their record of experience with presidential contests.

Lockhart has worked on every Democratic presidential general-election campaign since 1980, in addition to serving as Clinton's White House press secretary during the impeachment trial -- perhaps the nastiest moment in partisan politics until today. And McCurry was Clinton's spokesman for three years, including the first several months of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Joel Johnson, a former senior adviser to Clinton, was installed as the campaign's new director of rapid response (the war room). Sasso was brought on board to be a traveling strategist on the plane with Kerry, the role Bruce Lindsay played for Clinton. Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who dropped his work with other groups in order to advise the Kerry campaign, was brought in not for the more populist line he often espouses but for his reputation as a more aggressive fighter.

Michael Whouley, newly ensconced at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), has his own impressive track record: turning around Gore's flagging primary campaign in Iowa and then doing it again for Kerry. (Whouley ran field operations for Gore.) Howard Wolfson is now adding punch to the DNC as well; he ran Hillary Clinton's war room in the tense autumn months of her 2000 Senate race. Clinton advisers Carville and Begala, meanwhile, will also play greater roles.

Kerry's pattern as a campaigner has consistently been to bring tougher strategists on board as the going gets tougher. At least, that's what Democratic insiders are banking on. “The American people hate a bully,” one recently told me. “But you know who they hate more? The guy who won't fight back. Lockhart understands that, Sasso understands that, and they told Kerry what he intuitively understood: He should have responded [to the Swift-boat attacks] with a shock-and-awe counterattack, but he didn't.”

With the new team in place, perhaps that's a lesson he's finally learned.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.