Extended Q&A With Matthew Dowd

Austin Chronicle: So what's your next trip to Austin Community College for?

Matthew Dowd: They have this Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, so I'm going to talk there about the campaign and politically where the country is. I always like to do that to get people politically involved, so I'm going to give a conversation right after the debate on Thursday.

AC: From your point of view, where is the nation politically before the election?

MD: I think, because of this huge anti-Republican wave and because people are so upset about the last eight years, I think we're in that place where Democrats will pick up seats in the House in Washington, in the U.S. Senate, in the Texas House, and they'll probably pick up seats in the Texas Senate, and they'll probably replicate that across the country. I think Barack Obama is going to benefit from that wave that he's riding well, and obviously he's a great speaker and has a demeanor that fits with where the country is today with all these crises. So I think we're on the verge, barring something happening, of Obama becoming president in one of the most historic elections and of Democrats picking up seats around the country.

AC: There seems to be two underlying trends that people discuss: One that there's a discontentment with the Republican Party, and one that there's a Democratic demographic time bomb – which do you think is the major factor?

MD: You won't know about any underlying trends until you've been through a few elections. But I think this election is nearly exclusively about the anti-Republican place people are in. They're upset about the war; they're upset about the economy; they're upset about the administration in Washington. But that's compounded by the fact that the youth in this country decided, at least for the last couple of elections, that the Republicans don't represent who they are or where they want to be. That's driven in part by the war. So this year, big anti-Republican year. The long-term effect? It could be precipitated by the youth, how large they vote and how much Barack wins. He'll win the youth vote substantially, and that's a big thing like in 1980 or 1984 when Ronald Reagan picked up a large amount of the youth vote. Your first and second votes are usually the vote you hold for 20, 25 years, and that's why it's so important this year and so important for Democrats.

AC: It takes a long time to shift.

MD: It takes a very long time to shift. I had my own break with the president [George W. Bush], obviously. I did Democratic campaigns, and then I believed he could make changes, which is why I think so many people in this country are so disappointed. I think the biggest part of his legacy will be missed opportunities.

AC: There's a pretty substantial industry of Democrat-only or Republican-only campaign professionals. If there is this big shift for Democrats, especially with the redistricting in 2010, where do you think campaign professionals will go? If you have this huge and well-funded industry that benefits from low-quality debate, were do you think they'll fit in?

MD: I think if Barack Obama gets voted in, it'll be a sign that the country is more willing to listen to what the candidate has to say than what the consultants have to say. Some of the best consultants are the ones that have a candidate and then try to communicate exactly who that person is. The ones that don't do well, either for the candidate or the political marketplace, are the ones who make them into something they're not. So I think the country will look at itself, and I think the campaign industry will have to look at itself. I don't see myself as home in either party anymore, and I would have a difficult time being involved in the industry in this country. I do the stuff for ABC, but I'm out of partisan politics, participating in a consulting way. Maybe if a good friend or someone I absolutely believe in ran, I might get involved. But me, like many others, are tired of it.

AC: I was talking to the Republican Party of Texas spokesman, and he said this is the first election of the post-Bush era, the first election in 28 years without a Bush running for high office in Texas.

MD: You have a gulf on both sides. This is the first post-Bush, post-Clinton election in a long time, and I think each party is searching for what its future is. I think the Democrats are in a much better position because they have someone who is a generational candidate, Barack Obama, and they're much better positioned for stepping into the future than the Republicans, so I think that's what makes this election so important.

AC: What's the one thing that's most surprised you or filled you with most dread or made you happiest about these elections?

MD: I'll start off with what's made me most optimistic. It's the fact that except for the last few weeks, two candidates emerged that were not the most ideological candidates in either parties and didn't run campaigns like that – both of which began their campaigns and ran their campaigns on this whole idea of bringing the country to a common sense of purpose and lifting people up and looking at things across this political divide. The fact that both parties nominated people whose candidacies were based on this is a great thing. It shows where the country is, and I think that's a great thing. The fact that we're about to elect the first African-American presidential candidate is going to change the way we look at ourselves and the way the world looks at us. The world can never look at us the same if Barack Obama wins the election, because it will change the very nature of us because of what's gone on over that last 200 years. That's the great thing. The disturbing thing is what's devolved, especially from the McCain side over the last few weeks. We've reached these attacks on [Bill] Ayers, and there's a backlash because it's not who McCain is. In my view, the best chance they had to win was to campaign with dignity and honor, even if it's an outside chance, and that's not where it is. So that's disturbing to me. There's a continued reliance in both campaigns on consultants who are out of step with how people get their information and where people are. I think political advertising is not very effective even though we continue to spend millions and millions of dollars on it, and so at some point, people are going to recognize the things that don't work tactically and do work. So those are the things that give me the greatest hope and the things that are most disturbing.

AC: With Karl Rove – and before that, Paul Begala and James Carville – we're in the strange world of superstar political consultants. Considering it was always one of the biggest back-room jobs, and knowing [that] who they were was seen as getting in the way of the candidate, people are looking at their résumé in the same way as they would at the candidate.

MD: Some of that's driven by the consultants themselves because they want to build an industry around themselves, so it's the cult of personality. But part of it's the media, and they always want to find the one person. It's a false myth that the media creates that somehow it's one person – whether it's a Karl Rove or a Begala or a Carville or Steve [Schmidt] – pulling the strings and controlling the election. Elections are fundamentally about the candidate, and then there are multiple people involved in giving advice and counsel. So part of it's driven by the person who wants to be viewed as key, and part of it is the media who wants to think that there's some figure out there responsible for it exclusively. Both don't do us service. The media somehow needs to change the prism by which they want to view that.

  • More of the Story

  • Dowd, on This Historic Moment

    Former Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd shares his thoughts on the post-Bush, post-Clinton era

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