Winning Right: Campaign Politics and Conservative Policies

Winning Right: Campaign Politics and Conservative Policies

by Ed Gillespie

Paperback(Threshold Editions)

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If Washington politics is Hardball, Ed Gillespie shows how the game is really played!

With a fresh, new insider's perspective, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee draws from lessons learned in more than twenty years of campaign strategy and national policy debate — most especially from his role at the heart of the historic and groundbreaking 2004 presidential election — to reveal how the game of politics is played on its highest level. In a frank and engaging narrative, he looks inside the George W. Bush presidency and beyond, to discuss such topics as

- A political code of ethics and playing by the rules

- Successes and failures in campaign planning and execution

- The role of old and new media

- The battle for the Supreme Court

- Hot-button issues

- The future of the GOP — and how to win right in 2008.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416525639
Publisher: Threshold Editions
Publication date: 09/11/2007
Edition description: Threshold Editions
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ed Gillespie is a founder and cochairman of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a bipartisan public affairs firm that provides strategic counsel, government relations, and communications services to corporations, trade associations, and issue-based coalitions. He was a principal drafter of the 1994 "Contract with America" and editor of the New York Times bestseller by the same name. One of the most prominent and successful strategists in the Republican Party, he was general strategist for Elizabeth Dole's 2002 Senate campaign, and was a top aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, now governor of Mississippi. Gillespie served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2003 to 2005.

Read an Excerpt



Winning campaigns are based on a coherent strategy and executed against a plan. A good plan will beat a bad plan, but any plan will beat no plan. A campaign that doesn t have an idea where its candidate is going to be scheduled two weeks from now, doesn't know what message it intends to be on next week, doesn't know what ads are going to be up in three weeks, doesn't know what its 51 percent of the electorate is composed of, or doesn't have a cash-flow projection is a campaign that is likely to lose on Election Day.

The Bush-Cheney '04 presidential campaign will be remembered as one of the best-conceived and -executed in history.

Our overarching plan for the 2004 campaign was, from the outset, to reinforce President Bush's greatest strength: the certainty of his leadership. You could argue with the hard decisions he had made, but you couldn't argue that he had been willing to make the hard decisions.

We felt that in a period of uncertainty, in both a national security environment fundamentally changed by the events of September 11, 2001, and an economic environment fundamentally changed by globalization, Americans wanted a sense of certainty in their executive.

In February 2004 we settled on "Steady Leadership in Times of Change" as a "placeholder" slogan, but ended the campaign on it nine months later. With steady leadership as the central rationale for candidacy, we developed the messages and tactics necessary to reinforce it and made strategic assumptions that guided our actions throughout the course of the year.

We assumed a close race.

We assumed high turnout.

We assumed that security would be the most vote- determinative factor, and that would be to the president's benefit. All these assumptions turned out to be true.

The Bush-Cheney strategy table was in Karl Rove's dining room. Literally.

Every weekend of 2004 beginning in February, the Bush-Cheney high command would gather at Karl's house in northwest Washington for an hour and a half of strategic planning. The regulars at the table were BC04 Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman; White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett; BC04 Campaign Strategist Matthew Dowd and his deputy, Sara Taylor; Mark McKinnon, director of the ad team; BC04 Communications Director Nicole Wallace (who was at the time Nicole Devenish) and press secretary Steve Schmidt (a barrel-chested guy with a shaved head whom Karl nicknamed "Bullet"); Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff; and longtime Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who was the vice president's former communications director.

With the exception of Wallace, who had come to the White House from Florida Governor Jeb Bush's office, and Schmidt, who'd been communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, every single one of the people at that table had been centrally involved in the 2000 campaign. The Bush campaign nucleus was a coherent unit of people who were loyal not only to the president, but to one another.

This group became known internally as "the Breakfast Club" because we would meet on a Saturday or Sunday at around 10:00 AM, and for breakfast Karl would whip up his patented "eggies," a very tasty, cholesterol- laden dish, served with mounds of thick slabs of bacon. The meetings remained a well-kept secret for more than five months before a July New York Times feature on the campaign revealed their existence, complete with photos of the participants and disclosure of the "eggies."

The focal point of the Breakfast Club was long-range planning, specifically a month-long calendar filled in with message, scheduling, ads, and outside events. Dan Barlett would lay out what the official White House schedule dictated. We would take into account anticipated releases of official jobs numbers, foreign presidential travel, visits to the United States from foreign heads of state, congressional actions, and other items. Such things were beyond our control and had to be factored into our planning.

Once those days were Xed out we would fill in the days with things we wanted to be talking about and then try like hell to stay on our chosen messages. The resulting calendar might seem to be a jumble of colors and blocks, but to us it was our roadmap, and we guarded it like a nuclear code. I never left a meeting with one in my possession, always ceremoniously tossing it back on the table before I left so if one ever showed up in a news report I couldn t be blamed!

None ever did.

In contrast, one of the great things about running against the Kerry campaign was there was no guesswork involved. His staff loved to tell the New York Times and the Washington Post what they would be doing next week and the week after.

The frustrating thing about running against the Kerry campaign was their seeming inability to stick to their leaked plans.

For example, they had decided, smartly I believed, to close out the election on jobs, the economy, and health care. These were the issues on which Kerry most dominated Bush in the polls, and Kerry campaign strategist Mike McCurry called them their "closing argument." But when the New York Times ran a front-page story they'd been teaming up with CBS News' 60 Minutes to break late in the campaign reporting that 377 tons of munitions were missing from a depot in Iraq, the Kerry campaign jumped on the story for days, abandoning their plan to hammer on the economy in the home stretch.

As Stuart Stevens, one of the Bush campaign's advertising team, might say in his singsong cadence, "If the question is Iraq, can the answer really be John Kerry?" I hated the munitions story, but everyone around the Bush-Cheney strategy table agreed with Matthew Dowd who said he'd rather be dealing with a bad national security story dominating the campaign in its closing days than a bad economic story.

Campaigns are shaped more by what you're debating than by how you re debating it. If Medicare is front and center in a campaign, it's not likely the Republican candidate is going to win. If tax cuts are the central issue of a campaign, the Democrat is probably in trouble. One of the challenges of any campaign is agenda setting, and at the end of the '04 presidential campaign, the Kerry team could not resist the temptation to fight on terms historically favorable to Republicans.


In his victory speech on November 4, President Bush referred to Karl Rove as "the architect" of the campaign. It's an apt description. It's also fair to extend the metaphor and say he's a hard-working builder, a skillful painter, and a tasteful interior decorator.

When I first went to the RNC as chairman, I asked Rove what he thought my top priorities should be. "Narrow the gap between the number of registered Republicans and registered Democrats," he said without missing a beat. I focused like a laser on voter registration, even leasing a fifty-four-foot, eighteen-wheel semi-tractor trailer we dubbed "Reggie the Registration Rig," which rolled across the country from target state to target state, hitting college football games, NASCAR races, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and tulip festivals.

In my maiden speech at the RNC's Winter Meeting in New York in July 2003, I unveiled the Chairman's Cup, modeled on the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup. There is only one, and it resides with the state party that registers the highest percentage of its voting-age population in a year. The competition for the Chairman's Cup was added incentive for our state parties to bring new people into the GOP.

In the 2004 cycle, the Republican National Committee, working with the state parties, registered 3.4 million new voters. The president's margin of victory was 3.5 million votes. Karl was dead on in his assessment of the national party's principal objective.

The first time I met Karl in person was on a trip to Austin in the fall of 1999. I traveled there with then House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich (R-OH), who was considering running for president the following year, as everyone assumed then-governor Bush was, as well.

Kasich spent the night in the Governor's Mansion, and I stayed at a nearby hotel. We met back at the mansion in the morning, where Governor Bush hosted us for breakfast, joined by Rove.

The conversation was light and free-flowing, and Bush was very straightforward. He talked about the prospect of running for president, the pluses and minuses. He had an insight no one else in the field shared, having seen his father run for president three times (counting his '80 primary bid) and vice president twice. His was not a romanticized view of the process or the presidency.

He told Kasich that if both were to run, "I m not going to attack you. That's not what the race should be about." He playfully called him "Johnny Boy" a couple of times, which Kasich told me afterward he found condescending. (This was before Bush's penchant for nicknames became commonly known.)

I interjected once or twice in the course of the hour-long breakfast, but Karl said virtually nothing, only responding to a question from the governor here or there. It was the first time I d seen their interaction, and it sure didn t seem to fit the "Bush's Brain" nickname that had been applied to him by Bush's political opponents.

After breakfast, Bush gave us both a brief tour of the Governor's Mansion, and we left for the airport. I had no idea at that moment that I would end up working for George W. Bush little more than six months later.

In the interim, Kasich and I had a blast traveling the country, introducing him to Republican groups in key early primary states. John Kasich can crank up a crowd like few people I've seen in politics. When he's on, he can lift a crowd on his back and soar with them. And he's usually on. I got to know John when I was communications director for the House Republican Conference, and I would argue for him to close out debate on just about every major floor vote, which took a little courage since that was usually the prerogative of the House majority leader (my boss) or the Speaker.

I was leaving Des Moines on the same day Bush made his first campaign visit to Iowa. His chartered plane (which he'd glibly dubbed "Great Expectations") landed just as mine sat on the runway waiting to take off. I was dozing against the window when the pilot came on the speaker. "If you look out the right side of the plane, you ll see George Bush Junior's plane on the tarmac," he said, using the appellation that was common before everyone came to learn that the governor wasn't a "junior" and was distinguished from his father by the initial W (before they would be distinguished from each other by "41" and "43").

I raised the blind and saw the 737 sitting there, three chartered buses lined up on the tarmac to accommodate the traveling press corps, who were unloading TV camera after TV camera from the belly of the parked plane. A row of dignitaries lined up to meet him. It was a far cry from the two reporters who had ridden with Kasich in the back of the rented Ford Expedition the day before, and it wasn't too long after that that we came to the conclusion that John Kasich's Presidential Exploratory Committee would never convert its funds to a John Kasich for President Committee.

Kasich exited in style. It's possible to run for something and lose, but still come out ahead, and I always say of the Kasich presidential effort, "We got out better than we got in."

John decided not only to abandon his presidential effort, but to abandon his House seat. He and his wife, Karen, were having twins, and he decided that after nearly two decades in Congress this was a turning point. He didn't want to simply end with the negative announcement of his decision not to seek the Republican Party's presidential nomination, but to make a positive statement as well: He was becoming a George W. Bush supporter.

Talk about real news: "I'm not running for re-election to my House seat, I'm not seeking the presidency, I'm announcing my support for Governor Bush, and Karen and I are going to have twins!

On July 14, 1999, the media were buzzing about Kasich's announcement, and Bush was happy to come to Washington to personally tip over the first domino to fall on his way to nomination.

From the hotel in Columbus where John made his announcement I called Karen Hughes on her cell phone. She was traveling with the governor and they were sitting on the tarmac in Iowa. I suggested that they bring two "Bush for President" baseball caps to put on at the press conference and John would announce that he was now on the Bush team. It was a little hokey, but I thought it would make a good photo-op that reinforced youth and vigor. Not every politician can wear a baseball cap. The ability to do so without looking goofy reflects an everyman quality that's appealing, and both Kasich and Bush could pull it off (in contrast to, say, Steve Forbes or Al Gore).

Bush came through a back entrance to the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue accompanied by Maria Cino, my old friend from our House days. She had run the National Republican Congressional Committee under Representative Bill Paxon (R-NY) when I was working for Armey and Haley. Maria's a lot of fun (she would later serve as deputy chairman at the RNC when I was chairman), but on this day she was all business.

Kasich greeted Bush, who said, "I really appreciate you doing this, John." He was almost somber, not as back-slapping as when we had been in Austin.

"I m glad to, George," Kasich said, and by that time he really meant it. John's a fierce competitor and he wasn't happy to be quitting the race before it even really began. He and I were the last ones to accept the inevitability of his withdrawal, and I argued for him to stay at least through the first multicandidate debate on the grounds that the exposure would be helpful and he would excel in such a forum, but our strategist Don Fierce was adamant that if we hung on any longer we would start to look silly. Up in New Hampshire, a guest at one of Kasich's meet-and-greets backed over the hostess's dog, and John very graciously buried the old cocker spaniel in her backyard (after the event was over, of course!). The media had picked up on the quirky story, and the dead dog had somehow become a symbol of our nascent campaign.

Kasich introduced me to Bush, but as we shook hands the governor said, "We met before." I was surprised he remembered the breakfast of months ago, as was Kasich, who said, "I wasn t sure you'd remember."

"I served him bacon in my home," Bush said.

A couple of things about that. It struck me that he said the much more specific "bacon," not just "breakfast," and that it was in "my home," not "the governor's mansion." Second, he sounded mildly insulted by the notion that he wouldn't have remembered it — insulted not by an implication that he had a bad memory, but by an implication that he had bad manners.

For all I knew, this was in a briefing book he read on the plane on the way to Washington. ("Kasich will be joined by Ed Gillespie, who was with him in Austin at the breakfast. You served bacon.") Either way, it was incredibly good form.

After Kasich endorsed Bush, I stayed out of the presidential contest, not working for any of the candidates in the field (Bush, John McCain, Elizabeth Dole, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, et al.), and did frequent guest appearances on cable news shows as one of the few Republican strategists out there not aligned with a campaign. The fact is, I was partial to Bush, but figured they didn't need any more help anyway.

That changed in January 2000, when John McCain shook up everything by trouncing Bush in the New Hampshire primary. The next day, I called the Bush campaign in Austin and told the press shop to start sending me talking points, as I no longer considered myself unaligned and would tell television bookers to identify me as supporting George W. Bush for president.

I didn't have anything against John McCain. I just believed Bush's brand of compassionate conservatism was the future of our party. I think Karl and others appreciated the fact that I called not when everyone thought Bush was the inevitable nominee, but on the day many people thought he wouldn't be.

Months later, after Bush had locked down the nomination, Karl asked me to be part of a group that served as a bridge between Austin and the Washington Republican crowd. Besides me there was former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, Bill Paxon, longtime operative Charlie Black, former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, and Mary Matalin. We were dubbed the "Gang of Six," and we'd meet every few weeks to share ideas with the so-called "Iron Triangle," Karl, Karen Hughes, and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh.

Figuring out how to best use talent is an important part of any campaign, and as Bush was running as a Washington outsider (if not running an anti-Washington campaign), there was some angst among establishment Republicans in the nation's capital. Karl wanted a bridge to this group, a way they could funnel ideas into the campaign and a way for him to funnel messages out. He didn t want to change the outsider nature of the campaign, but at the same time wanted to mitigate the carping in the press that would be inevitable without some form of structured contact with the Washington establishment.

One of my tasks was to think about Gore, and how best to approach him from an opposition perspective. Toward that end, Karl gave me a thick polling report and asked me to dig into it.

Before this exercise, I had my own view of what people didn't like about Al Gore. I thought he came across as a know-it-all, a condescending prima donna. What struck me in the polling report was the consistency of responses to the "open-ended" question, "What is it you like least about Vice President Gore?"

Instead of adjectives like "arrogant," "snobby," and "elitist" dominating the sentiment, it was shot through with words like "wishy- washy," "indecisive," and "weak." One respondent said, "I think his wife wears the pants in that family."

I went through and quantified all the responses that fell under the "wishy-washy" category versus the "arrogant" category, and the vast lion's share were under "wishy-washy." I told Haley, "They don t think Gore's a jerk, they think he's a sissy."

One person said, "He told on his teammates." This prompted me to do some research. It turns out that Gore was on his high school football team and one night there was a keg party. Most of the team went, but Gore didn't. The next day the football coach was frustrated by the lack of energy in practice, and Al helpfully explained to him why so many of the players were dragging!

I shared my analysis with Karl, and it's one of the reasons we were so prepared to capitalize on Gore's pattern of flip-flopping in the 2000 campaign. We saw it early and laid the predicate down in the media, and he ended up playing right into it. Voters are smart, and they know what they see. This is another example of the need to be willing to let the data inform your conclusions, rather than letting your conclusions inform the data. I could just as easily have gone through and pulled out all the examples of responses that supported my own view that Gore's principal weakness lay in his perceived arrogance, but the preponderance of the data did not support my predisposition.

About a month after joining the Gang of Six, Karen asked me if I'd be willing to help handle the convention in Philadelphia. She said Andy Card was going to be the campaign's convention chairman, and they wanted someone to manage the program. I told her I'd be honored, and in May Andy and I took our first trip to Philadelphia on the Acela train from Washington's Union Station.

I had heard of Andy Card long before I met him. He was, and is, a strong Bush family loyalist. He'd been secretary of transportation for former president Bush, and was his deputy chief of staff before that. He d been our party's nominee for governor of Massachussets in 1982. For the next two months, we'd be joined at the hip in Philadelphia.

The first meeting I went to, there was a discussion of the program. Someone said, "We think Colin Powell would make a great keynote speaker." I agreed, and asked where things stood with the speakers. I was surprised to learn that not a single one had yet been invited. It was June 9. The first day of the convention was July 30, less than six weeks away, and not a single singer, not a single speaker, not a single person to recite the Pledge of Allegiance had been lined up yet. We had our work cut out for us.

Someone kept saying that Gloria Estefan was going to sing on the first night of the convention, but I couldn't nail down whether this was true. It was one of those somebody knows somebody who knows her kind of deals, but I couldn't get a firm answer from the people who had been charged with working on the program to that point.

My old friend (and now business partner) Marc Lampkin, who was responsible for floor operations at the convention, would laugh every time someone mentioned Gloria Estefan, which was a little disconcerting to me.

"Why are you laughing every time we talk about Gloria Estefan?"

"Let me tell you something," Marc said in his raspy voice. "I m more likely to sing on opening night than Gloria Estefan. Those guys are full of it."

Finally, I called a friend at the Recording Industry Association of America and asked him if he knew of Gloria Estefan's schedule for the summer, because we were counting on her playing Monday night of the convention.

He called me back an hour later.

"Gloria Estefan has a concert in Japan on July 28."

Strategy should define tactics, not the other way around.

The Kerry camp allowed their tactics to define their strategy, while we maintained the discipline necessary to have our strategy define our tactics. The best example of such discipline may have come in summer 2004, as we faced growing pressure for the president to unveil a new policy agenda.

Throughout most of the election year, the Bush-Cheney campaign had been almost constantly on defense, beginning in early January with the release of Ron Suskind's book, The Price of Loyalty, claiming that President Bush had planned to invade Iraq from the very beginning of his administration. Former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill appeared on January 11 on 60 Minutes in his first interview since leaving the cabinet to air some of the damaging claims he made to Suskind in the book.

The month ended with David Kay, the former head of the U.S. weapons inspection teams in Iraq, informing a Senate committee that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq and that prewar intelligence was "almost all wrong."

And in between those two bookends, John Kerry cemented his reputation as a "strong closer" by coming back from the politically dead to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

In the first week of February, the president went on Meet the Press and pledged to release all of his National Guard records, which he did later that month only to be criticized by the media for not doing so in a more timely and complete manner.

On February 10, the White House Council of Economic Advisors released The Economic Report of the President 2004, in which they suggested that the outsourcing of jobs overseas is a benefit to the economy.

Many of us on the campaign pointed out to our friends in the White House that, whatever the economic theory, outsourcing didn't feel like a benefit to a lot of unemployed workers in Ohio.

Meanwhile, John Kerry was winning the Maine caucuses, and the Virginia and Tennessee primaries.

March began with the release of February's monthly jobs numbers, which came in at a dismal twenty-one thousand jobs. A week later, the White House announced it was pulling the nominee for the newly created position of assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing ("the manufacturing czar") after it was learned that his company had laid off U.S. workers and outsourced their jobs to China.

I joked to Dan Bartlett that I didn't mind so much the bullets we were taking in the chest from the Kerry campaign and the DNC, but the bullets in our back were starting to hurt!

On March 21, former national security staffer Richard Clarke appeared on 60 Minutes to attack the Bush administration for failing to prevent 9/11, and for its prosecution of the war in Iraq, as a preview to his book Against All Enemies, which was published the next day.

After Clarke testified before the 9/11 Commission later in the week, the White House reversed its opposition to having National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice go before the commission. By the end of March, the president and vice president had both agreed to testify before the commission as well.

The lowest point in the campaign may have come in April, when the report on abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison aired on 60 Minutes, showing the despicable photos that all Americans found shameful. In the following week, over fourteen hundred stories ran on the prison abuse scandal, and our numbers began to sink.

The month ended as the deadliest one for U.S. troops in Iraq since the beginning of the war, with more deaths than in January, February, and March combined.

May was dominated by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers, and other DoD officials testifying before Senate and House Armed Services Committees on Abu Ghraib prison abuses, and the murder in Iraq of American contractor Nicholas Berg in the first of a series of grisly beheadings that shocked the public.

On May 23, retired general Anthony Zinni appeared on — you guessed it! — CBS's 60 Minutes to discuss his new book, Battle Ready, in which he lambasted the administration's plan for and conduct of the Iraq war.

June began with reports of President Bush consulting with his attorney over the investigation of the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, Vice President Cheney testifying in that probe, and CIA Director George Tenet announcing his resignation.

And June ended with Michael Moore's incendiary documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, about the war in Iraq and the Bush White House, which opened nationwide in 860 theaters and raked in $22 million in its first weekend, smashing the previous record for a documentary.

By July, when Senator Kerry announced John Edwards as his running mate and they were heading into the Democratic National Convention with the cover of Newsweek touting them as "The Sunshine Boys," I wasn't surprised to see the blind quotations from "Republican sources" and "sources close to the White House" urging the unveiling of a new policy agenda to try to change the storyline and get us back on offense.

It was a tempting thought, but our strategy was to hold off announcing new policies until the president's convention acceptance speech, using it to frame the debate in the election's homestretch on our own policy terms when it would matter most. Despite being down in the polls and weathering some negative press, we decided to stick to our plan.

It's at times like these that you have to trust your instincts and hope your strategic assumptions are correct. Despite all the technological advances of the past decade — the internet ads, the flash polls, the focus groups, and the like — politics at its core is still a gut check. Data can be read a number of ways. Little pictures can be construed to compose different big pictures. A sense of timing matters immensely. This is the critical and often determinative realm of politics that is more art than science, and the fact is, usually both sides tend to see the same thing. Their instincts are pretty much in sync.

David Espo, who covers congress for the Associated Press and is one of the finest political writers of this generation, says that political people aren't just Democrats and Republicans, they're either on this planet or they're not. One little-known fact about national politics is that in off-the-record conversations, Democratic and Republican operatives tend to reinforce one another.

Both sides essentially acknowledge the same swing states, concede the same issue sets, acknowledge the same strengths and weaknesses. Very rarely do you have professionals on the different sides actually disagreeing on the fundamentals of a race.

This is why I was confused in July. In April and May, I felt that we were winning, but I never felt that we had it won. In July, I felt that we were losing, but I never felt that we had it lost. In fact, while I always understood we could lose, I never once felt we would lose.

One of the great things about the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign is that we kept our bearings whether we were eight points down or eight points up. We never crossed the boundaries of either dejectedness or giddiness, but stuck to our strategy.

Copyright ©2006 by Edward Gillespie

Table of Contents






A Good Plan Beats a Bad Plan, Any Plan Beats No Plan


Define or Be Defined


The Recount


Execution Is Critical


It s Not About You!


Cutting Corners Can Cause Bleeding



Supreme Court Summer (and Fall and Winter)



Maintaining a Republican Majority


Midterms and Beyond




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