Politico’s Mike Allen on the President, the press and the campaigns.
HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Mike Allen of www.politico.com. Mike, nice to meet you in person, thanks for coming by.
MA: Well, good evening, it’s fun to be face to face with you.
HH: Is your mic on? There you go. Fun to be face to face. That’s what we have to do, is make sure…Mike Allen, you were, you wrote today, Surging In South Carolina about Barack Obama, and I’ll start with your post today. By the way, you can get The Politico Playbook mornings, right? You send it out every morning? You e-mail it to people?
MA: We do, and when you go to www.politico.com/playbook, there’s a little box, and I invite you to send in your e-mail. I’d love to have you join me for breakfast. We say the Playbook, it’s part of a healthy breakfast.
HH: Well now, what time do you write that? Is that done the night before and then released in the morning?
MA: Well, Pacific Time, your time, it’s very early. No, I get up at like four or five, and my boss, Jim VandeHei, has been up for hours before that. So we start very early on Politico, we like to be able to start people’s day. Our theory is that people like you, me, your listeners, we get up and we all read the same hundred links looking for the same five, ten articles.
MA: And the idea of the Playbook is we find it for you, and whatever is going to drive the day, whatever is going to last beyond the news cycle, we try and flag it for people in the morning.
HH: Now is that a joint operation? Or is that just Mike Allen?
MA: It hopefully includes the intelligence of the great planet Politico, but I put it together, yeah.
HH: Okay, so if they see something, they can e-mail it to you, and you start putting it together.
HH: Is it designed to overtake The Note, which has fallen on, unfortunately, hard times in my view?
MA: No, not at all. And I still love The Note. Rick Klein, who writes it, is a close friend and a great guy. Our idea is to be earlier, a little quicker, people tell us they want to know very snappily, and we try and find things that are going to, people are going to talk about that day. So we look around and try and figure out what people will blog about. You beat me with the link, for instance the other day, on the Pollack-O’Hanlon article.
HH: Oh, yeah, yeah.
MA: But it’s articles like that that we know are going to make conversation, try and pick it up, point out a quote or two, and people, if you grab it, go out the door…I used to, when I worked at the Washington Post, a little secret here, when I would wake up late and was going into the office when I did the White House, the thing was, if I woke up really late, I would read Maureen Dowd and Al Kamen’s column, because I would know that if I’d read those two things, I wouldn’t be embarrassed if I ran into somebody in the elevator. So that’s what we kind of shoot for.
HH: That’s camouflage. Okay, now tell me about the campaigns, and how they’re responding to the new media cycle. This is what I really want to focus on today. Obviously, in 2004, and 2000, there was nothing like this. There wasn’t a Mike Allen working virtually around the clock, and able to publish 24/7. How do they manage this?
MA: Well, Hugh, the campaigns are very smart at this, and they look at it as a new echo chamber for them, a new way to get out their, both their positive message about them, and also make points about others. So, for instance, you mentioned Senator Obama’s speech today on foreign policy. Other people, people, critics of Senator Obama, put out the idea with people in the electronic media that this was a do-over for him, that he was trying to make up for…
HH: The gaffe at the debate?
MA: Yeah, well, that’s a matter of opinion. But certainly, different emphasis today. In fact, there were times today that Senator Obama, and I’d be interested if you disagree, but I think there were some times today that Senator Obama sounded like a Republican. He even echoed, at one point, Mayor Giuliani’s reference to the fact that the terrorist war…now I read your post, and I read about the first rule of holes. Now the first law of holes is stop digging, right?
HH: Right, right.
MA: Okay, I got it.
HH: And that’s when…when he said I’m going into Pakistan, whether Musharraf wants us or not, I thought my gosh, this kid, and I shouldn’t call him a kid, because he’s not that much younger than me. You don’t…Musharraf lives in an open society. I mean, his fringe is beating up on him for being an American puppet, and now he’s getting threatened by one of the leading Democrats with invasion. It’s crazy.
MA: And Hugh, in your post, you asked what about the high value targets in Iraq?
HH: Yeah. I did…wow, you are reading this. Now I want to go back to the campaign. You have a wealth of things you could do. For example, I’m going to do a speech at a Romney event in Orange County in a couple of weeks, and I’ll be interested to see…
MA: My home county, Seal Beach.
HH: That’s it. Are you going to be out for the Romney swing?
MA: It sounds like I should be.
HH: Yeah, that would be a good one. I’ll take you out to dinner afterwards. But how do you pick? I mean, you can go anywhere at anytime, I assume, that Politico will let you travel to go cover this campaign, you’re their big gun. How do you pick?
MA: Well, what the Politico tries to do is switch around, so as you know, we have Jonathan Martin, who focuses man to man on the Republicans, we have Ben Smith who does a great job with Democrats, Roger Simon and I sort of switch off. And so I try and get out and see all the different settings, for instance, when Governor Romney was in Utah, I went with him. I was just out, as you know, on the Edwards poverty tour. And Sunday, I’ll be with Mayor Giuliani.
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HH: Mike, when we went to break, we were talking about how campaigns are evolving rapidly. I want to go back to that, because I think people who love this show are obviously political junkies, and they all are envious that all you get to do all day long is do politics. Is the intensity level now greater than anything you’ve ever seen before in terms of how much focus is coming at the political media?
MA: I think it is, and in part, that’s because we have a number of, and you and I’ll probably disagree about the exact number, but there’s a number of credible campaigns right now, and usually, we’re used to just focusing on red and blue. But you really have at least three on each side that you need to pay attention to. And you were talking a little bit before the break about how the campaigns are adapting to this new media, and they’re using it around the clock. A fascinating thing about these Republican campaigns, and that is Giuliani, McCain and Romney, all of their communications operatives are schooled in the Bush-Cheney school. You know Steve Schmidt…
MA: …who was the director of rapid response or the deputy communications director, all of them learned under Schmidt’s rules, and it’s his premise that the news cycle ends with the late night comedians, Lettermen, Leno, and it starts when the AP starts sending out its fresh stories a little after Midnight. So the point is, the election cycle always goes. And when I wake up in the morning, I think about what’s going to be news in a few hours. They also are thinking about what’s going to be news in 24 hours. And so you have them putting out the nut of a speech, and then they’ll put out excerpts of a speech, and then a text of a speech before it’s delivered, and then you get the color when they deliver the speech. And so…they do that with their own positive message. And at the same time, I know this will shock your listeners, on a second track, many of these campaigns are reminding you, let’s say, of things about the other guy.
HH: Now you see, I’m not getting any of that. I don’t think, I think because I’m a center-right and an opinion journalist, as opposed to just a pure by the numbers, they don’t work me on the backroom, because they’re afraid that that will pop up. There are no conventions with talk radio people like there might be with journalism. Schmidt’s…by the way, I’ve never met him. I’ve heard about him for years. He went out and he ran Arnold’s campaign, and he did a tremendous job.
MA: You have a great memory, and Steve is awesome…
HH: Where’d he go?
MA: He was a consultant to the McCain campaign, but he has his own business, they’re in Sacramento, California, and he works a little bit with the Mercury Public Affairs group. But Steve is awesome, he’s a bulldog, he’s intense. He will call you up about these stories like, remember the story about John Kerry’s house and the taxes on it?
HH: Yeah, yeah.
MA: I was so tired of hearing about that house, like I thought that whatever we were going to learn from that we’d already learned. But Steve was relentless about it, and…
HH: Why don’t they put him in charge of war message management, because the Bush White House is just not good at this.
MA: Right, and this is part of the talent drain that’s occurring in this White House…
MA: …because as you know, Steve was a very high official in the Vice President’s office…
MA: And he also went over to Iraq to look at the communications capabilities, and he came back with a number of recommendations about even some of the logistical things to help people get those stories out. Now I think the military’s getting smarter about it, as you know…
MA: The military organized the O’Hanlon-Pollack tour, and I didn’t know until I read your interview with Mike O’Hanlon that they’d had an interview with General Petraeus…
MA: That had not been reported before. That was very fascinating. But I think that shows you that the military’s getting better at this.
HH: And Petraeus, the General came on with me for half an hour, and that turns into an hour of radio. That’s what I think the people around the war have to do, they have to do a lot of one on ones. But I want to go back to Schmidt. Have you talked to him about where he’s going since the McCain campaign’s over?
MA: No, that was a…because of Steve’s discipline, he would not acknowledge that to you.
HH: Yes, he would never say that. He would tell you Mike, you should say right now, no, it’s not, I’m still covering it, right?
MA: And it was a small part, a very small part of his business segment. But he is doing business in Sacramento, he’s got a young family…
HH: Because everybody wanted him, right? He was like the big get that everybody wanted to get?
MA: Absolutely, but the great thing is that he is…and I try to do this on my site, the great thing of it is he’s populated his ideas into these young people who are out there today, Matt David, Kevin Madden, all these young people are out there. They sort of have the Schmidt credo. That’s part of the philosophy of the Politico, is that we are trying to work with some younger reporters to bring them along, you know, John Harris, Jim VandeHei and I, our theory is, if we’re writing the stories in three years, we’ve done it wrong. We want to be bringing along a new generation of people, and we’ve found these amazing people like Jonathan Martin…
HH: Martin’s really good.
MA: These great guys…
HH: I don’t read Ben too much, because I’m just not that into the Democrats at this point. Hey, let me ask you about…but Martin is very good, and I’ve seen Ben break a couple of big stories thus far. You mentioned Madden. He’s the Romney guy. Run down, we’ve got two minutes to the break, the big six campaigns, and throw in Fred, who is their face, and how do you rank their talent levels?
MA: Well, as you point out, Kevin Madden, and we kid Kevin about being a little bit underexposed. Kevin Madden’s getting a lot of air time these days, but he deserves it. He talks about running the Kevin Madden handsome school. He was always on those, in the tabloid Hill papers, and he’ll give you tips on what’s going on in his abs class in addition to talking to you about Governor Romney. He was the first person that told me about the word coMittment, and he made a very substantive point, and I think this applies to journalists, too. He talked about why it’s an advantage for them to be in Boston, and that is you’re out of the sort of Beltway mentality, you realize more of what matters to people, and it takes, as he says, coMittment to move up there. If you’re up there, you’re focusing on Romney.
HH: Yeah, yeah.
MA: If you’re in D.C., you’re thinking about who you’re going to have dinner with that night.
HH: Yeah, that’s actually…I’ve not heard that argument, but it makes…that happened on immigration. Bush-Cheney White House and the Hill got totally out of touch with whatever was going to drive that debate. So Madden’s an A…Who’s doing Giuliani?
MA: On the communications side, you have Katie Levinson, who came out of the White House, also is imbued with those principles. Maria Camillo is working with her. And on Senator Thompson’s team, as you know, just got a big hire, Fox News producer on Capitol Hill who is very, very well liked, very astute about the media, and he’s really going to have, Jim Mills is really going to have a sense of where stories are going. And that’s…
HH: That’s an interesting…
MA: Part of the job is killing stories, and part of the job is pumping them up, and he’ll be able to do both of those.
HH: He’ll look over the horizon and see what’s coming. Now what about the idea of going…well, we’ll come back.
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HH: Mike Allen, thanks for the time. I’ve got two big questions for you. Who’s going to win Ames? Is there a surprise coming for Romney? It looks to me like there’s some stuff going on there.
MA: Yeah, well, you know a lot more about that than I do. But for a while, people have been saying Iowa doesn’t matter. You’re right, there’s enough activity there that people will follow it. And getting people, turning people out in Ames for a caucus is a job, just like raising money is a job, turning out people for a caucus is, so it’s a test for organization. People will talk about how many busloads the Romney campaign brings in or whatever, but somebody who can run buses can maybe also run the country. So people will be looking at that to see what skills you can pick up. But I can tell you that probably unlike 2000 when Steve Forbes, as you know, had the tents with the French doors, I don’t think we’ll have that this time.
HH: But is there…they’ve tried to downplay expectations, the McCain, Giuliani and all the other candidates except Brownback are saying no, no, no, no, it doesn’t matter, we’re not playing. But I’ve been picking up that in fact, they are playing, that they’re going to try and embarrass Romney there. Are you hearing that? Not by beating him, but by making it close enough that people say whoa.
MA: Yeah, my colleague Jonathan Martin would know a lot more about that, but I can tell you the Romney campaign is smart, and I doubt that they’ll be taken by surprise. If you’re picking up on it, I bet they are.
HH: Now the Tony Snow question, and it’s really the future of how they do this. Tony Snow’s very good at what he does, and better than Ari, better than anyone I’ve seen doing it, maybe McCurry.
MA: And he came in at a time when the President so desperately needed. And it was somebody in addition to what he does on camera, people in the West Wing say that his presence there has really helped. He’s someone who knows the family, knows the issues, knows the press, is not afraid to push back…
MA: He doesn’t take it from reporters. He treats reporters like they’re a crazy caller to his talk show.
HH: Yup, and he pushes back with friendlies as well as hostiles. Let me ask you, though, can you follow that act up again? Is that now the model, that they have to bring a superstar communicator and put him behind the podium?
MA: I think different presidents have different needs at different times, and I think that Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan did a great job at the time that they were there. Obviously, this is a time of testing for the President. You were with him today. You know that he is as resilient as you can imagine. You wouldn’t…he does read the papers, as you well know. But you might think that he didn’t, because it’s amazing that he’s able to keep up his spirits the way he is. We were out at Camp David the other day, you maybe saw the video of when he picked up Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his golf cart, which had a Golf Cart One and presidential seal on the front. He drove by the press, waived, sped up a little bit, and then did a 360. It wasn’t quite a donut, because he didn’t spin out, but he did a little circle right in front of us, just because he could, gave us a little mischievous smile, and a waive, just to remind us that he’s there. So that’s his mood, and I think Tony Snow reflects that. He is a happy warrior.
HH: Mike Allen, great to have you come by, thanks for stopping by Heritage to do this, and I’ll look forward to talking to you many times between now and the election. www.politico.com, America.
End of interview.