The two most successful modern presidential campaign gurus sparred on Monday night on topics ranging from the quality of each other's books to the size of their bosses' respective tax cuts.
David Plouffe, who ran Barack Obama's campaign and Karl Rove, who was chief adviser to former President Bush's two winning efforts, sat down at the Panetta Institute in Monterey, California for a conversation on bipartisanship. They did not exactly lead by example.
At one point, as Rove kept badgering Obama for perpetuating (in his words) "this myth" of a president "who is committed to bipartisanship and post partisanship," Plouffe acidly replied: "This is like getting interview lessons from Sarah Palin -- a lecture on bipartisanship [from Rove]."
Later in the session, moderated by CNN's Frank Sesno, the two strategic minds playfully squabbled about their respective forthcoming books. Rove started the banter innocently enough by reminding the audience, for the second time, that his book was available for "$29.95 on Amazon.com," before noting that Plouffe's book would be released earlier (November) and for less ($24.95).
"But mine will be in the non-fiction section," Plouffe interjected. To which Rove, who feigned being stabbed in the heart and unable to help himself, replied: "His will be the one with lots of pictures in it. And it comes with a little box of crayons so you can do it yourself."
Even when policy was broached during the nearly hour-and-a-half-long event, it was from the vantage point of diametrically-opposed political figures, with Rove usually playing the role of antagonist.
For example, in defense of the Obama administration's efforts at bipartisanship on the stimulus package, Plouffe noted that the bill provided "the biggest middle class tax cut in American history."
"Go back and look at the 2001 tax cuts," countered Rove. "[We] cut the lower brackets by 50 percent for the lowest and a third for the second lowest. It dwarfs [Obama's] tax cuts."
Addressing the birth of the "permanent presidential campaign," Plouffe insisted that Obama was not crafting policy with an eye towards reelection. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "Having run his campaign, I can assure that what is happening right now is not a campaign mindset."
To which Rove insisted that Obama was much more politically motivated that his former boss, a response which prompted snickers and then laughter from the audience,
"Every White House remains in a campaign mode," he said. "Sure, absolutely, [we were too]. But not to this degree. I mean, these guys run so many polls that they have a Wednesday night meeting to review each week's polls and focus groups... We met every couple of months to review polls."
Later, Rove described the Obama policy on restricting the access and influence of lobbyists as "window dressing" -- a noble intention that would have little practical impact. "Mark my words," he said. "I appreciate what President Obama is attempting to do by limiting lobbyists. But there will be more lobbyists registered in Washington the day he leaves than the day he got into office."
Plouffe was left to reply that he did not "think this is window dressing" at all. "I mean lobbying is a profession that may be one of the few sectors that is growing in Washington. But [there is] a big change," he added. "[The] revolving door has been shut, and it is going to be much harder for the next president, whoever they are or whatever party they are from, to rescind that."
The areas of friction did not end there. On topics ranging from the controversial advertisements Republicans ran against former Sen. Max Cleland in 2002 and the actual number of people identifying themselves as Republicans, to the current president's take on bipartisanship ("Frankly," declared Rove, "I'm troubled by the attitude of the administration in reaching out to Republicans"), the two butted heads.
In fact, the one and perhaps only area of agreement came when Rove and Plouffe talked about their mutual disdain for the news media. A less-than-substantive conversation turned into a denunciation of the press for failing to focus on substance.
"The media really is focused on process more than it is substance," declared Rove. "And it is focused more on controversy than it is substance. And it is focused more on the side conflicts than the central drama."
Added Plouffe: "A lot of the coverage emanating out of Washington... is centered around conflict and kind of who scored today and who didn't. And I think the substance sometimes suffers in that."