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Former Obama Campaign Staffer Stephanie Cutter On The DNC’s Mistake In Limiting Debates And Lack Of Depth On Their Bench

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The transcript:

HH: From the MGM Grand Hotel, the Washington Post is doing a special pregame special of which I am a part tonight at the MGM Grand, as is Stephanie Cutter sitting across from me on the radio row here, which is one radio show. Of course, you know her from Crossfire. You know her from the Obama White House and the Obama campaign. You know her from the Clinton White House. She is now a partner at Precision Strategies. You can follow her on Twitter, @SefCutter, and it’s STEF, not PH, @StefCutter. Stephanie Cutter, welcome back, good to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

SC: Thanks for having me.

HH: You’ve been in these rooms before. What are they doing tonight in the suites over at the Wynn, where I assume they’re all staying?

SC: Well, I would imagine they all have their own, you know, preparation moments happening right now. I know for President Obama, when we were preparing for a debate, he needed some alone time, and then to see one or two people just before he walked on stage. So I would imagine people have their rituals and they’re following them. There’s nothing more you can prep for at this point. You just have to get yourself psychologically ready to walk out on that stage.

HH: So we’ve seen a million boxing movies. And there’s always the locker room moment right before you go out and do the fight and touch gloves and all that kind of thing. President Obama wanted to see a couple of people. I assume David Axelrod would be one of them, right?

SC: Absolutely.

HH: And so what would they talk about? What would, does Axelrod whisper, you know, in Rocky, it’s always you’ve got to get in there, you’ve got to get past the pick. What would he say?

SC: Well, I would imagine, you’d have to ask Axe exactly what he said, but I would imagine it was just, you know, be yourself, you’re ready for this moment, and being a calming force before you walk into bedlam.

HH: It is, it was bedlam at the last debate with the Republicans. What are you expecting tomorrow night? Let’s walk through it. Former Secretary of State Clinton has the most to lose. I don’t know that she can actually, can she win anything tomorrow night?

SC: Sure, absolutely. You know, I think that they are, they probably all, at this point, have their own goals for tomorrow night. And for Secretary Clinton, it’s to, you know, hopefully stand by some of her positions and help explain them a little bit, but also show America exactly why she’s running for president, lay out her narrative a little bit more clearly. It’s been hugely interrupted over the past five months with emails and servers and you name it. So this is an opportunity for her outside of the media lens to talk to people about why she’s running for president and what she wants to do.

HH: You know, earlier today, Stephanie Cutter, I was on CNN with Patti Solis, and she said the same thing. She said the email thing was underestimated, totally disrupting Team Clinton.

SC: Oh, absolutely.

HH: And they had no idea that it was…

SC: No ides.

HH: …that they’d hit the iceberg.

SC: Yeah, yeah.

HH: So was it an iceberg? Or was it a bump?

SC: Well, we don’t know, yet, do we? You know, I think it’s probably a bump. I think she is more likely than anybody else on that stage to win the nomination. And in a general election, I’m not sure the voters, that both Democrats and Republicans need to appeal to, care that much about email servers.

HH: Okay, so on Meet the Press yesterday, the first time we met was on the Meet the Press stage, and Bernie Sanders is asked by Chuck Todd are you a capitalist.

SC: Yeah.

HH: And Bernie Sanders says no.

SC: No.

HH: And I, my jaw, I said to Chuck, that’s the weekend moment.

SC: Yeah.

HH: That’s like a defining moment in Campaign 2016.

SC: Yeah.

HH: Can you get elected, can you win a Democratic primary with a no to that answer?

SC: Yeah, well, I’m sure somebody was gathering that footage for potential advertisements in about six to eight months from now.

HH: Oh, I…

SC: You know, we’ve never been tested on that, have we?

HH: No.

SC: We’ve never been faced with this…

HH: Well, actually Eugene Debs tried it a few times, but it didn’t work.

SC: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think that most people believe in capitalism in this country. The thing about Bernie Sanders is that he is 100% authentic, and he wasn’t going to put lipstick on that answer. He was going to say exactly what he is, and he’s a, you know, what is it…

HH: A Democratic Socialist.

SC: A Democratic Socialist, yeah.

HH: Whatever that is, it’s not a capitalist. So what do you do if you’re not Mrs. Clinton? You don’t get Bernie’s people mad at you. But if you’re Lincoln Chafee or Martin O’Malley, especially…

SC: Yeah.

HH: …who wants to be the other guy so that he can be the vice president, what do you say about that?

SC: Well, I think you know, I would expect Governor O’Malley to make the point that he shares a lot of the same beliefs as Bernie Sanders, probably not the anti-capitalism point. But unlike Bernie Sanders, he has a record of getting things done. He’s been an executive. He’s been a governor. He’s been on the front lines. And you know, for all of Bernie Sanders’ attributes of being true to who he is and fighting based on principle, very little has gotten done based on that. He’s certainly influenced the debate, guided a message, influenced a platform, but in terms of getting concrete things done, that record is much smaller than what Governor O’Malley can point to.

HH: What were you doing in 2008? What was your job in the 2008 campaign?

SC: I was a senior adviser to President, then-Candidate Obama.

HH: Senator Obama.

SC: Yeah, and I was, yeah…

HH: Against Mrs. Clinton, who was then-Senator Clinton.

SC: Yeah, and Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

HH: Have you written a memoir?

SC: No.

HH: Are you going to?

SC: No.

HH: I’m glad. Actually, I’ve never liked operatives who come out and write memoirs.

SC: Yeah, no.

HH: It’s never struck me as the right thing to do.

SC: That’s not why I was in it.

HH: But I’m curious if the level of energy, if you can sense it in a debate setting, right, because this is a lot of energy for this early in the cycle. Can anyone maintain this kind of pace?

SC: Well, this, we’re actually, compared to 2008, you know, we would have been through seven or eight or nine debates at this point.

HH: Oh, interesting.

SC: So it is, it is, there’s been a lot of build up to this moment. This is the first time these candidates are going to be standing on stage side by side. It’s the first time Democratic primary and caucus voters will be able to compare them side by side. So we’re, you know, what are we, about 90 days…

HH: Yeah.

SC: …away from…

HH: Iowa.

SC: …Iowa.

HH: Yeah.

SC: So this is when people start making their decisions. This is when, you know, people get really tested.

HH: Strategic error or strategic genius of the DNC to delay, delay, delay the beginning of the debate cycle?

SC: Well, it depends on your point of view, right? If you’re Governor O’Malley, it’s a big error. If you’re Hillary Clinton, you know, I think at the beginning of this, it was a good thing for her. Looking back on it, I think it might have been okay for her to do a couple of debates, because at least we’d be talking about something else other than…

HH: That’s what I think. In the summer, they let the summer…

SC: She wouldn’t be, yeah, you know, so far, she’s been running against herself.

HH: You guys killed Mitt Romney when he was off the air in early 2012. Remember when he ran out of money, and then he had to wait for the convention.

SC: Yeah.

HH: And you just killed him. You were relentless. And she’s been kind of off the air all summer. So we had the summer of Trump on my team, and we had 24 million people watch the debate as a result. Do you think we’re going to have anything like that tomorrow night watching?

SC: I don’t think we’re going to have 24 million. And let’s remember why 24 million were tuning in. It wasn’t because they were interested in…

HH: I think it was the moderators, actually. I think it was Hugh Hewitt. That was good.

SC: Yes, oh, absolutely. Yes.

HH: You bet, that was it.

SC: Yeah, you were a draw.

HH: It was Trump.

SC: It was Trump. They were looking for some entertainment. They weren’t looking to learn something. And I think that while there will be a lot of interest in the debate tomorrow night, it will be primarily about people’s positions and what they would do as president rather than insulting women and insulting immigrants.

HH: Your former colleague, Van Jones, from Crossfire, and I were together in the trailer, and he was pointing out for the Democrats to win, they have to get 94%, I think that’s the number he used, of the African-American vote, and that he’s not feeling that energy. Are the Democrats right to be alarmed about that?

SC: Is he talking about the general election?

HH: Yeah.

SC: Well, I would say, having been through this six times, that what the world looks like right now is not going to be what the world looks like a year from now. So it’s hard to make that prediction. But I do know if faced with a choice between any one of the candidates that will be on the stage tomorrow night and you know, any of the candidates that were on the stage that you were interviewing, that the choice for African-Americans is pretty clear in terms of who is going to be looking out for their interests.

HH: But you’ve got to get them motivated, right? You’ve got to get voters excited.

SC: We’ve got to get them motivated, and we’ve got to get all of our voters motivated in what we call the Obama coalition.

HH: You put together, I’m sure you had a hand in the convention of 2016 and the convention of 2008, in the minute to minute thing. And they had lots of people to stand up there, and lots of fun people to get the crowd excited about, but you had the President. So the President’s unique. I was there in ’04 in Fleet Center when he blew off the rafters, and I said wow. Who does the Democratic Party have on the bench, Stephanie Cutter? Who can be the warm up, the keynoter on the night before your nominee steps up there?

SC: You know, I think that there are a lot of people on the bench. You know, it’s hard to compare anybody to President Obama in ’04, or President Obama in ’08 or ’12.

HH: Right.

SC: And, or President Clinton, for that matter. But there are a lot of, you know, strong people on the bench. Tim Kaine, Governor Kaine from Virginia is an extremely popular, independent Democrat that people will want to hear from. You know, the Castro brothers are always somebody that people want to hear from.

HH: You see, I haven’t heard any of them, and this is, one of the reasons I think Sanders has done so well is he’s connecting in an old style with some passion.

SC: Sure.

HH: But I haven’t heard any of these Democrats in person.

SC: Yeah.

HH: I don’t, like President Obama blew me away in ’04. I had no idea what was coming. Boom.

SC: Yeah.

HH: So do you think the Castro brothers have that kind of boom?

SC: Yeah, I don’t want to make any predictions on that. And like I said, I think it’s going to be hard to compete with what Barack Obama did in 2004. I was standing behind him on that stage watching that.

HH: Oh, were you?

SC: …and mesmerized by how much his feet were moving as he was delivering that speech. He was basically almost moving like a boxer back and forth as he gave that speech, because he was so passionate and energetic.

HH: I know exactly where he was. I was in the aisle entrance where radio row was. I had to, they had to put the Republicans on the top floor, of course. You didn’t put us anywhere near. So I had to run down the steps and come in the back, and everyone was standing there. But the energy flowed out from that speech. It was a remarkable moment. My prediction, you haven’t got anything close to that.

SC: Yeah.

HH: And that’s a problem.

SC: Yeah.

HH: Maybe the Castro brothers, we’ll see.

SC: Well, you guys have Trump, so…

HH: Stephanie Cutter, I wonder if he gets a role at the convention?

SC: Oh, I bet he will.

HH: Interesting. Very interesting. It’s like Buchanan in ’92. That’s very interesting. If he’s not the nominee, does he speak? Stephanie Cutter, thanks for being here.

End of interview.


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