Two legendary political strategists tell us what to look for in the making of the president 2008

The 2008 presidential race got off to an unusually early and competitive start. Few political observers are better equipped to analyze how this unusual campaign year will play out than two Harvard Law School alumni: David Gergen ’67 and Robert M. Shrum ’68.

Gergen, widely considered one of the nation’s leading experts on political messaging, has served as an adviser to four presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. He is currently a professor of public service and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and he wrote the 2001 book “Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton” (Simon & Schuster).

Shrum began as a speechwriter to George McGovern in 1972 and served in a similar role for Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 campaign. He went on to top positions in the campaigns of both Al Gore and John Kerry. Shrum has also advised 30 winning U.S. Senate campaigns as well as those of governors, mayors, and also leaders in Israel and Britain. He has just published a book about those experiences titled “No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner” (Simon & Schuster).

In September, Seth Stern ’01 asked Gergen and Shrum to share some thoughts on the 2008 race. They were interviewed separately, but their answers are printed together below.

What do you see as the central issue in 2008?

Shrum: The unspoken theme is simply competence, but as Michael Dukakis [’60] showed, that doesn’t get you where you need to go. The central theme of 2008 is going to be, fundamentally, who are you going to fight for, who as president are you going to stand up for? Change is the touch word for this election. The big issue is obviously Iraq. The big domestic issue is health care. It is also a metaphor for other big domestic issues: stagnation of middle-class incomes and the fact that people are working harder and not seeing their incomes go up and are having tougher times making it.

Gergen: We know some of the essential issues. Iraq, the Middle East and the larger war on terror are going to be central. That’s obvious. What I don’t know is whether the campaign will convey the appropriate sense of urgency about what America faces in the future and whether candidates will talk honestly about trade-offs. So far, they mostly aren’t. For example, how is each side going to deal with the issue of global warming? They talk seriously, they even talk apocalyptically about the problem, but nobody has wrestled with the question of how we put a price on carbon. Most experts believe we’re going to need both a cap and trade system for carbon as well as a carbon tax, but no candidate so far has come within 10 miles of a carbon tax.

What’s the effect of the early compressed schedule?

Shrum: I think that instead of making Iowa and New Hampshire less important, they make them more important. Iowa and New Hampshire are the winnowing events. They winnow the field and massively change how people in future states are looking at the race. Because of the compressed schedule, if two or three people each do well in the first primary, they could go into the February 5 primary and split up the vote because of proportional representation. There’s a 20 to 25 percent chance that will happen, but more likely we will have an early nominee.

Gergen: Most Americans are just unhappy with the idea that this campaign season started almost a year before it normally does and goes on and on. There’s a certain insanity associated with constant campaigning. If this trend continues, the presidential election will finish in November, and the next day the campaign will begin for the nomination four years later. It’s as if shops were to start hanging Christmas ornaments in July.

With the nominations likely to be determined much earlier in the year than normal, and the conventions occurring in August and September, it’s just too long to sustain suspense for a campaign. There’s going to be a tendency on the part of the media as well as the public to tune it out. On the other hand, it’s a magnificent opportunity for candidates to develop some long-range strategic thinking. This pre-convention period is going to be six or seven months long. Is it going to be a creative time or is it going to be a time when we really feel we’re sort of marking time or wasting time? I don’t know which way it’s going to go. It’s going to be a big question.

Shrum: Outside of Iowa and New Hampshire and the political class, a lot of people haven’t tuned in much. People say there’s high interest in the election. That’s because they desperately want the Bush era to end. So in that sense they’re interested. But they’re not paying very close attention outside the early states.

What’s been the impact of the Internet this time?

Shrum: Television ads are still an important part of this. TV ads are the only passive forms of communication. You have to open direct mail; you have to go on the Internet. But sitting in front of the television, you will see the ad unless you switch the channel. So, every campaign is still going to invest substantial amounts of money in political advertising. That said, I think the Internet is revolutionizing campaigning. For one thing, you have to assume a camera is on you all the time. You’re always on. Unless you’re in a room with your closest staff people, there’s always the potential to be on camera. It’s odd because the Internet encourages and demands spontaneity, but it also punishes spontaneity.

Gergen: The YouTube debate on CNN was one of the best innovations we’ve seen, and it’s going to bring us more interactive debates in the future. I’m not sure the particular format of having people making their own little Internet segments is going to be the wave of the future. There was a novelty the first time out that was fun, but I don’t think that will become a standardized format. But there’s going to be much more public interaction, and I think that’s extremely healthy because questions are fresh. They ask the questions that arise around dining room tables, not just in television studios, and the candidates can’t be as scripted in these formats. You strip away some of the veneer and there’s a little less handling and they’re more on their own. Beyond that, more money has been raised through the Internet. I think it’s made the whole process a little more “small d” democratic. I bet the percentage of gifts less than a thousand dollars and less than a hundred dollars will be much higher, and that’s entirely positive.

What’s surprised you so far?

Shrum: Hillary Clinton has done a terrific job making herself more accessible to people, confounding stereotypes. She’s been funny, loose, much more in public like the person I’ve seen in private. Some of the layers of protection have apparently been peeled away. She’s also got the problem that she’s the establishment candidate in a year of change. She’s rather cleverly defining change as nostalgia, which is a return to the ’90s. On health care, she talks about how she fought for it in the ’90s and how we need to go back and finish the job. Barack Obama [’91] is getting better and better. He is the best orator to come along in the Democratic party in 20 years. He’s getting better and better at these debates. He embodies change. He talks about it all the time. I think he’s doing very well.

Gergen: The biggest surprise in the campaign has been the fading of John McCain and his candidacy. He seemed to be the most formidable candidate on the GOP side and he seemed to fade, which has been a huge surprise. The second-biggest surprise is how well Hillary Clinton has done. Early going, she’s been much more effective at debates, and in general she’s run a well put together campaign that has exceeded expectations. The debates have been particularly effective. She’s been not only articulate and well-versed on the issues, but she’s been able to chip away at the stereotype of who she is. Before the campaign began, there was a widespread assumption that she was cold as a political figure. The woman who has shown up for the debates has been warm and gracious, and you can see changes already in public opinion polls. A growing number of people have warmed to her. They’re no longer speaking of her in the same negative ways that we saw earlier. That’s not to say she doesn’t have huge negatives, but she has gradually chipped away at them.

How is the Republican side shaping up? And where are Evangelicals going?

Gergen: The Republican race has been more fluid right from the beginning than the Democratic race. We started out with McCain substantially in the lead; then Rudolph Giuliani started with 40 percent support among Republicans. Fred Thompson came out of nowhere, but we don’t know where he’s going to go. Mitt Romney [’75] came out of the Iowa straw poll looking strong. Evangelicals as of the moment do not have a candidate, but more important, the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism have overwhelmed everything else, so the social issues have taken a back seat for the moment. But this still has a way to play out. We don’t know if, the day after the Iowa caucus, if Fred Thompson has won and Rudy Giuliani has lost, we’re all going to rush to say that the social issues prevailed again, but if Giuliani wins, we’re going to say they didn’t mean as much, and if Mitt Romney wins, we’ll say we don’t know what it means. We’re in the early chapters of a long book.

Shrum: When I ran Senator Kennedy’s [1994] re-election campaign against Romney, my whole desire was to keep his Mormonism entirely out of the race. I’m no expert on the fine points of the religious right’s theology, but in the end, if it’s a choice between Romney and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, I predict very little resistance to the fact he’s a Mormon. His religion helps him in one way. He’s such a classic flip-flopper in his social views from when he was governor [of Massachusetts]. Because the Mormon Church is so conservative, it tends to make people think he believes the flop and not the flip. On the other hand, something he’s going to talk about in the general election but not the primary is the fact that, as governor, he worked with Democrats to pass a universal health coverage bill in Massachusetts.