For just the second time since change came to America, the respective leaders of the Obama and McCain campaigns sat down at the same table -- last week, at the Harvard University Institute for Politics -- to set the record straight about what went wrong, what went right, and what happened behind the scenes during Campaign 2008. It played to a packed house that included at least half of CNN's best-political-team regulars -- no surprise, since shit like this is basically a Jonas Bros concert for media hacks.
"Here we are in a year we elected the first black president," opined moderator Gwen Ifill at the outset, "and I get to share the stage with four white guys." Which was an early cue that Gwen wasn't going to be as stiff as she was during her debate. Right off the bat she grilled Axelrod about his contacts with Illinois senate-seat salesman Rod Blagojevich, and soon after she called bullshit on McCain pollster Bill McInturff, forcing him to defend his ludicrous assessment in the closing days of the campaign that McCain was closing strong. (McInturff's defense included the dubious and yet revealing admonition that he hoped an historic black-voter turnout would produce an accompanying surge of "rural American" voters; he also admitted that the McCain campaign was blindsided by an enormous Hispanic turnout in the Southwest.)
Rick Davis admitted, with a shrug, that the campaign might as well have ended on September 15, and conceded that although McCain made the final call not to invoke Rev. Wright in the final weeks of the battle, the campaign's internal polling suggested that the most wildly optimistic best-case scenario even if Wright did become a campaign-ad focus would've been for McCain to win the electoral college with 273 votes -- and lose the popular vote by about three million. Davis also got in the punchline of the evening, in response to a question about whether Sarah Palin had hurt or helped McCain. His response? "You get what you pay for."
On the Obama side, Axelrod and Plouffe found themselves in the enviable position of preaching to the choir -- an anecdotal survey of question-askers revealed a higher-than-average contingent of Obama volunteers in the audience. As befits the winners, the pair could afford to be smug: as the Davids bragged about how they came to take it for granted that their war-room was leak-proof, Davis and McInturff sighed and exchanged meaningful shrugs. There was still a little testiness between the two camps, which bloomed into a couple of back-and-forth exchanges on which of McCain's Faustian bargains had ultimately sunk him. The typically mild-mannered Plouff couldn't help himself from making a snippy, derisive aside about "another of Rick's Ayers ads" (whereupon Davis gave a who-me? double-take and jabbed a thumb at McInturff).
Great stuff for politics junkies -- and lucky for you, we've got the whole thing on tape. So without further ado, here's the hour-plus exchange, uncut, with the post-showdown Q&A included. Many thanks to the folks over at Harvard's JFK Forum for inviting us.
DOWNLOAD: "Campaign 2008 War Stories" with David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, and Gwen Ifill [mp3]