Speaking at a forum on presidential transitions, Barack Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe said that the Texas primary constituted "the biggest mistake" he made during the campaign, said if John Edwards had finished third in Iowa, Obama would have won New Hampshire, and scoffed at cable news for its knee-jerk coverage of anything "snarky."
These reflections on campaign '08 were not deeply controversial. But Plouffe's appearance was, because it was insisted that the session be off-record for members of the press.
When word came down about these ground rules, protest and histrionics erupted in the halls of the National Press Club, where the event was held. The Club wrote a letter registering strong opposition to Plouffe's decision. And the Washington Post's Dana Milbank donned a sandwich board sign mocking Plouffe, before writing a scathing column about the incident on Friday. On Thursday, the event's sponsor, Georgetown University, said the decision to restrict reporting was Plouffe's alone. But, even it that's true, there was certainly time for advance warning. The contract Plouffe signed assuring the event would be closed-press was dated December 19.
That nuggets of information would make become public anyway seemed inevitable. Milbank handed out pens and pads to non-media attendees, urging them to take notes and report back to him. What he got was mostly political milquetoast but, for those who lived through the past two years, worth a read.
Here is Plouffe on Gov. Sarah Palin: "Vice presidential picks rarely but sometimes make an electoral difference. Our view was it probably wasn't going to matter that much. It's the most over-covered story in politics. This was the one exception to that. It did have an effect."
"She was our best fundraiser and organizer in the fall."
Here is Plouffe on the media: "What we were focused on... was really not what was coming out of the coverage every day, and our candidate was very good about it. ... The McCain campaign was much more focused on putting ads out to dominate cable chatter for a few hours. ... That was never what we thought was important."
"You put out a snarky TV ad or something controversial, that's all NBC, CNN and Fox are talking about, but that's not how you win elections. I think that discipline paid off."
And here is Plouffe on the general election turning point: "Probably the most important 72 hours of the campaign ... were McCain's suspension of his campaign right up through the presidential debate. One was steady, one was not. ... From that point on, people saw McCain as more unsteady and erratic. He was never really able to dig out of that."
All of which is somewhat interesting stuff. But there was one anecdote that Milbank missed that seemed like truly new terrain. (Full disclosure: I was in the room but -- observing the ground-rules -- not taking notes. This comes via a friend who was also in attendance).
Plouffe said that, "If Edwards had come in third in Iowa it would have helped us in New Hampshire. Almost all of his vote in New Hampshire would have gone to us... I remember getting on a plane and someone said, 'Oh, Hillary Clinton came in third in Iowa.' And I said, 'That's not going to help us at all.'"
Following Plouffe's logic, Edwards' voters were more likely to go to Obama once they realized that their candidate was out of the running. Of course, Hillary Clinton's chief spokesman, Howard Wolfson, has basically insisted the exact opposite. He suggested that had Edwards' dropped out of the primary because of his affair, his boss would have won the Iowa Caucus and, likely, the nomination.