Fighting Money Machines and Dirty Politics
Bill Burton is a senior strategist at Priorities USA, a political organization, and Priorities USA Action, a PAC, both of which support President Barack Obama’s reelection bid. He served as the White House Deputy Press Secretary from 2009 to 2011, and was the National Press Secretary for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
The Politic: Can you talk about some of the work you are doing right now as senior strategist at Priorities USA?
We decided to start Priorities USA as a countervailing force to the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove, who decided to spend hundreds of millions of dollars campaigning against the President. Right now, our organization is actively building a team that’s trying to do so through messaging, fundraising and targeting.
The Politic: You’ve been at the forefront of politics, serving as Deputy Press Secretary from 2009-2011. What do you think is the best way for President Obama to pitch his first term? And what is the best way for Romney to pitch Obama’s first term?
Well, first of all, I don’t presume to know or guide the strategy of the President’s campaign. But I’d say that the President has a record that the whole country can be very proud of: he’s saved the auto industry, the financial sector, gotten the economy into a recovery track, killed Osama Bin Laden, wound down the war in Iraq, among other things. What Americans want to know is what his vision is for the next four years. Ultimately, this election will be fought as a choice between the President’s and Mitt Romney’s visions for the country. Since the consequences of Mitt Romney’s vision would be catastrophic, I’d say that President Obama’s strategy should simply be to lay out his vision for the future. As for the best way for Romney to pitch President Obama’s first term—I don’t know his campaign strategy. But if he really believes in the vision that he’s laid out for the future of this country, I think the best strategy for him in this election is to lay out his competing vision and the choice this country has to make.
The Politic: How do you think the administration lost the fight on pitching Obamacare? After all, this is a program the administration claimed helped millions of Americans, yet they never quite captured that narrative. Why did this happen, and what can be learned going forward?
Well, first of all, there was a brutally negative campaign against the Affordable Care Act by the Republican Party, over which hundreds of millions of dollars were spent. It was nasty, brutal and deceptive. And even after this campaign, the American people are pretty much evenly split on healthcare. The mere fact that the American people are evenly split after all the negative campaigning from the right shows that we didn’t necessarily lose the narrative on healthcare.
Going forward, I think the question is if Romney wants to repeal healthcare, what is he going to replace it with? There are a lot of things that people like in this healthcare bill allowing children to stay on their parents’ coverage, covering preexisting conditions—and taking those things away from the American people will be a hard argument for Romney to make. I think if healthcare’s going to be brought up in this election, it will be by Democrats talking about how good it is.
The Politic: What was the biggest lesson you learned as National Press Secretary for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, and how have you applied that lesson in 2012?
Definitely that the speed of politics and messaging is changing. In ’08, we all discovered how much impact the Internet and social media could have, along with how quickly and nimbly we had to respond to threats from other campaigns, no matter how foolish they may seem at first.
We’ve been pretty effective online in this election. For example, last November we posted a video called “Mitt Romney’s America” that was designed to drum up interest in Romney’s vision for the country. Because of how we targeted the video, it’s since gotten over 300,000 views on YouTube—we reached more people with that video than Romney’s video of his announcement of his candidacy for president. So being aware and harnessing the power of the Internet is key for us in 2012.
The Politic: What is the most valuable thing the Democrats have gotten out of the Republican infighting during the nomination race?
Politically, it’s a clear illustration of the Republican Party’s ultra-conservative vision for this country and how damaging it will be for education, the economy, gay rights, Hispanic Americans and the country as a whole. To see Romney embrace these far-right views, such as dramatic reform of Medicare and radical immigration laws in Arizona, is then really illuminating for voters.
The Politic: On what issue will the election be fought on? Will the economy be as big a factor as people thought it would? And will the Supreme Court ruling on healthcare affect Obama’s campaign?
The economy will be important, no doubt about that. Healthcare and foreign policy will also be key issues. No presidential election has ever been fought without an extensive conversation on foreign policy, and for the first time in a long time, this will be a conversation that the Democrats can look forward to. It would be electrifying and shocking if the Supreme Court struck down health care. It would also be a huge call to action for supporters of the President because we have to make sure that there is such a type of healthcare package that will help consumers and keep costs low.
The Politic: What do you see as Obama’s reelection strategy this time around? And how does it compare to past presidents seeking reelection (Is he trying to frame it as a choice election rather than a referendum)?
As I said, I don’t specifically know the strategy of President Obama’s campaign. But I think this election is about two vastly competing visions in this country. The President’s vision of this country makes a lot more sense, and he will try to strengthen that vision and poke holes in Romney’s vision.
In the end, no matter what, each election is a choice and people will go into the voting booth to vote for the future, not the past. Winston Churchill, for example, lost the election after World War II. People vote not on what happened, but what’s next.
The Politic: President Obama has always been in favor of campaign finance reform, yet he has Priorities USA, a super PAC, to support him. Do you think this may be a little hypocritical? Why or why not?
President Obama supports campaign finance reform. But if Karl Rove and the Kochs want to play by one set of rules and spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a nasty and cynical campaign against Obama, we’re not going to sit on the sidelines and watch the President be washed over in a sea of right-wing money. We are going to play by the existing rules, not the rules that we wish were in place.
The Politic: The Obama campaign is trying to bring back the energy it had in 2008 through videos about how far we’ve come: “Fired up! Ready to Go,” and so on. Do you think it can energize its base like it did in 2008, and how will it go about doing it?
I think the Obama campaign can definitely do that. Engaging supporters and Democrats was a remarkable accomplishment in ’08 and it’s key that people are energetic this time around.
The Politic: Do you see an end to the partisan bickering in Washington after the general election?
It’s impossible to predict what Republicans will do regardless of the outcome of the general election. There are strong disagreements in Washington, and that makes sense because people with strongly held beliefs are sent to Washington by voters to make that fight. That’s politics. It’s the act of the trying to find the best way forward out of a diverse set of ideas. The politics won’t stop, it will never stop; the question is will it still be as unproductive as it was under the leadership of Boehner and the House Republicans? Will they stop at nothing to get what they want?
The Politic: What do you think of the future of the Republican Party, considering that this year’s candidates swung so far to the right?
The Republican Party is really in terrible shape now and for the future. It’s alienated the fastest growing population in the country by taking radically right-wing positions on immigration and the DREAM Act. It’s alienated more the half of the electorate on issues like contraception and women’s rights. In the long term, the Republican Party really is in bad shape.
The Politic: What do you think is the biggest long-term issue facing the country right now, besides the economic crisis?
Two things: first, the safety and security of our nation, along with our foreign policy interests in the world. And second, the environment and how clean our water and air are.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a freshman in Silliman College.
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