Author Mulls a Winning Strategy for Democrats

By E.J. Kessler

Published June 01, 2007, issue of June 01, 2007.
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As Democratic lawmakers struggle in Congress over how to end America’s military involvement in Iraq, Democratic strategists have waged a behind-the-scenes battle over the best way to position the party on national security for the 2008 election.

While there appears to be broad agreement that America ought to quit the war, a few Democratic strategists have maintained that the party shouldn’t let its anti-war left orchestrate a rush for the exits. Perhaps the most persistent proponent of this view is Douglas Schoen, a New York-based pollster who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton. His partner Mark Penn is the chief strategist of Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

A Hillary Clinton supporter, Schoen recently published a memoir, “The Power of the Vote: Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dictators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World” (William Morrow), which makes the case that to win in ’08, Democrats must cleave to the “sensible, bipartisan” center on national-security and fiscal matters. Schoen has argued that imposing a timetable for troop withdrawals and cutting off funding for the war would be “a terrible political error” that would resurrect the GOP’s national-security edge — a position that Mrs. Clinton pointedly rejected when she voted this month against the supplemental war-funding bill because it didn’t contain any such timetable.

So has Schoen lost the war over national security — and over the mind of Hillary Clinton — to the party’s left?

No, he insists.

The “result” of the vote was “ideal,” Schoen wrote in an e-mail. “The troops are now funded without any constraints and Senator Clinton has made it absolutely clear that she opposes the war in Iraq and wants to remove the troops as quickly as they can be.”

Whether or not Schoen wins Democratic hearts and minds — and it appears, despite his protestations, that he’s losing — his memoir is well worth reading.

A neat, balding man of 53, Schoen grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in an upper-middle-class family. His father, a corporate lawyer, worked at a firm founded by one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s top advisers. (A table in Schoen’s Park Avenue living room, where Schoen sat for an interview with the Forward, sports a photo of the pollster’s grandparents with Eleanor Roosevelt, who, like them, supported Israel Bonds.) Schoen attended Temple Shaarei Tefilla and cites the head of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis during the 1960s as a religious and political influence.

“The Power of the Vote” chronicles his political life from 1969 when, still a high-school student, he was recruited by the “West Side Kids” — a group of now-familiar politicians led by a budding strategist named Dick Morris — to canvass Manhattan apartment buildings. Schoen conducted overnight polling for Edward I. Koch’s 1976 mayoral campaign while studying law at Harvard. He has since polled for a raft of candidates in America and around the world, including Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg and Jon Corzine. A chapter details his involvement in Israeli politics, where he managed to work for both rightist Menachem Begin and his archrival, the dovish Shimon Peres.

The book’s most gripping passages, in fact, cover foreign elections — in Serbia, South Korea and Venezuela, when democracy itself hung in the balance. Schoen argues that exit polling, somewhat in disrepute here because of dicey results on Election Day in 2000 and 2004, can be a powerful tool for keeping elections honest in countries where the ruling regime may try to alter the results.

Mostly, however, Schoen’s book has been discussed as an argument about American politics and how the Democrats might accede to the White House.

According to Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who’s worked with him, Schoen has a reputation as “a creative thinker” and “one of the best in the business.” But he seems to have found himself on the wrong side of the argument over how to end the war, at least among the party’s activists. He and Penn, moreover, have come under ferocious attack from the party’s ascendant populist, anti-business wing for work they have done advising large corporations such as Texaco and AT&T.

Mark Blumenthal, a Democratic pollster who blogs at pollster.com, contends that the Iraq War has caused “a significant shift” in attitudes toward the parties’ handling of national security — and by inference that strongly anti-war positions may not be as politically fraught in general elections as they once were. Blumenthal pointed to recent polls showing that Americans trust Democrats over Republicans to do a better job handling terrorism by a more than 10-point margin. He also cited a Pew Research Center survey that found Americans split on the question of whether “the best way to ensure peace is through military strength,” with 49% agreeing and 47% disagreeing.

“That represents a 20-year low in agreement on that question,” Blumenthal said in an e-mail. “So I think those attitudes about national security and the parties are in flux, and the old models and research may not be as valid as they once were.”

Schoen remains unrepentant. “The job of a political consultant, first and foremost, is to win,” he said during the interview at his home. “The bulk of the energy in the Democratic Party is on the left, to be sure, but when you’re trying to win elections, particularly in red states… there are many more center-right voters than left voters.”

He identifies the Democrats’ left flank as “the George McGovern-Eugene McCarthy wing,” and asserts that he “felt that the most important thing that Democrats could do in 1968 was to elect Hubert Humphrey. I felt that then; I feel it now.”

He’s not impressed with the fervently anti-war positions of former senator John Edwards or Senator Barack Obama, whom he describes, bitingly, as “a work in progress.”

Schoen rejects the anti-business critique as irrelevant. Work for corporations is “something we did well and are proud of.” He claims that such work “is limited to strategic communications and as such does not pose any real conflicts” with what he does for political candidates.

What’s more, he has the ear of the one candidate who matters.

“Politically, as far as I can tell, Hillary has taken most if not all of the recommendations in the last chapter of my book,” Schoen said. “She is in the political center. She has tried to reach out on a bipartisan basis. She supports pay-as-you-go, fiscal prudence. She’s someone who believes in the need to reach out to evangelicals, and she supports a strong national defense and has made it very clear that she’s willing to sacrifice some perhaps short-term political gain to avoid doing what many on the left want her to do, which is to apologize for her 2002 vote” for the war.

“Given the antipathy to Bush and the Republicans,” Schoen continued, “I think she’s the odds-on favorite to beat any Republican if she’s the nominee.”


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