October 24, 2020

The Men Of Shrumancha

I don’t know Marv Levy, but he seems like a very nice man. His tough-as-nails but kindly mien on the sidelines as he coached the Buffalo Bills for over ten seasons projected a warm grandfatherly image at the same time it suggested that, with his bare hands, he had killed kids as young as his own grandchildren in the jungles of Guadalcanal, because he was doing what he had to do. And four times in his first six seasons he took the moribund Buffalo Bills to the Promised Land, looking all the while like he’d be just as comfortable in his Barcalounger with a pair of bifocals resting on the bridge of his nose as he would leading 65 men of skull-crushing strength to the Super Bowl, and who would fight alongside them every step of the way. That’s a person with the kind of gravitas, bonafides, and the smarts and vision of a leader you would allow to take you into battle. “I will walk with this lovable man into the bowels of Hell”, you would not be blamed for telling yourself.

Then he goes and loses four consecutive Super Bowls, and you start to see some chinks in the armor. You want to love and believe in this learned and experienced man, but…he can’t close the deal. Whether it’s bad luck, bad judgment, bad strategy or bad wiring that causes him to stop at the figurative two-yard-line and drop the ball to the turf, he can’t finish the drive. For all his obvious skill and likability, he gets no love from the victory gods. He can’t, as Alec Baldwin’s Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross demanded, “get them to sign on the line that is dotted!”

That’s how I feel about veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. For nearly forty years he’s been in the posse of Democratic party giants. He’s been the man behind the man who writes their speeches and plans their attacks, and makes them appear Presidential in a way that his jowly, rumpled self never will.

But he’s never won. To be victorious in a Presidential campaign is, in the right hands, a very possible dream. In Bob Shrum’s, it seems to be tilting at windmills. I thought John Kerry had a reasonable shot in 2004 at beating George Bush, whose poll numbers were flagging, who had us bogged down in a war that many said shouldn’t have been fought in the first place, and whose overall job performance in the first three years still had many, many Democrats sick and angry over how the Florida election officials and the U.S. Supreme Court had bludgeoned the path clear for a Bush victory. It looked like a window of opportunity, even for a staid, stilted, unexciting patrician like John Kerry. Then he went and hired Bob Shrum. Four years later, you’ll notice a conspicuous absence of “Re-Elect Kerry” bumper stickers on the freeways.

Just as I would never board an ocean liner with Molly Brown, I would never board a Presidential campaign that I wanted to win with Bob Shrum. He’s proven himself very capable at helping his candidates win tough Senate races, but, like Marv Levy, he just can’t, for whatever reason, seem to be able to take his game to the next level. Some have called it “the Shrum Curse”, others have suggested that he simply doesn’t have the big-picture focus to guide a national campaign. For whatever reason, Shrum’s resume’ at the Presidential Campaign level is far more voluminous than it should be for a man who has never successfully helped his man grab the prize.

Casually-informed Democrats beware: If you hear this man’s name associated with either the Obama or Clinton campaigns this year, pour yourself a stiff drink, sit down, and start trying to come to terms with the idea of living in John McCain’s America.

It’s not fair to blame one leading strategist for the boneheaded decisions of a campaign, but it’s hard not to see a pattern with the men whose campaigns Shrum has been calling the shots or whose doorstep he’s darkened–mainly, they’ve all been losers.

John Kerry: Bob’s reputation preceded him. Joe Klein wrote a piece in early 2002, “The Trouble With Shrum”, where he said correctly, “If history is any guide, Shrum’s choice (for President) will lose either a) the nomination or b) the general election.” This was a close race right to the end, and a race Kerry had every chance of winning. Which makes it all the more mystifying why Kerry would leave $16 million sitting in his bank account that could have been spent on ad buys and boots on the ground in some of the closer states. Halfway into Election Day, they thought they had it in the can, and Shrum drafted a victory speech for the next President of the United States, and the first of his long and losing stable of prize ponies. Very nearly at tears, Bob believed on Election Night ’04 that this was the night of his redemption. And then came Ohio.

Al Gore: Bill Clinton was on a golf course with Terry McAuliffe on the weekend before the 2000 Election, practically livid. “There is no reason I should be here with you and not out there.” He meant “out there” on the campaign trail, and he was right. He was one of the most popular Presidents in decades and, his sexual dalliances notwithstanding, America was sitting fat and sassy going into the 2000 race, and Al Gore wanted no part of the man who had overseen that. Shrum was helping lead Gore’s team.

Bob Kerrey: After Mario Cuomo, Sam Nunn, and Al Gore opted out of the 1992 race, Kerrey was an early favorite among the lesser candidates that the media dubbed “the Seven Dwarves”. Shrum signed up to stand in Kerrey’s corner. Kerrey was one of the first Democrats to drop out of the race.

Dick Gephardt: Shrum’s first choice in the 1988 Democratic Presidential race. After an inconsequential victory in the Iowa caucuses, Gephardt’s campaign, widely perceived at the time as misguided and somewhat inept, collapsed and Shrum went on to work for…Michael Dukakis.

Ted Kennedy: Shrum signed on for Kennedy’s insurgent campaign to defeat the incumbent Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Presidential nomination. Carter won.

Edmund Muskie, John Lindsay, George McGovern: A younger and more vigorous man at the time, the not-yet-thirty Shrum had enough fuel in his tank in 1971 and 1972 to participate in three losing Presidential efforts.