In the thick of the Democratic presidential primary, a top operative offered up John Edwards’ withdrawal from the race and endorsement – on the condition the person he endorsed would offer him a spot on the ticket.
David Plouffe details the deal that “a senior Edwards” adviser” tried to ink before the South Carolina primary, spilling the beans in his book “The Audacity To Win.”
Plouffe, then campaign manager for Barack Obama, was worried after the New Hampshire loss and polls tightening in South Carolina.
He said that the rival Edwards camp was in trouble and wanted to make a move with either Obama or Hillary Clinton while Edwards was “at a point of maximum leverage.”
In this portion of the book, Plouffe hedges a bit, saying he’s not sure Edwards was aware of the effort’s specificity.
But he also has direct quotes, suggesting he documented the conversation.
Read the excerpt after the jump.Plouffe writes:
Publicly his team insisted they could resuscitate his campaign in South Carolina. But privately, it soon became clear they knew otherwise, and some time after the debate, I got a call from a senior Edwards adviser.
This was the pitch:
“Listen. It’s clear unless the race is shaken up, Hillary is going to win. You guys might not even win South Carolina. What would shake the race up is John ending his campaign, but not simply to endorse another candidate. All things being equal, John prefers Barack. They should announce they are joining forces and will run as a ticket. Edwards can vouch for Obama with blue-collar and Southern whites and is running on a change message.
“It’s a perfect fit. And it has to be something that big to slow down Hillary. You need a big shakeup in the race and this could be it.”
I listened intently and replied that obviously this was something I would need to discuss with my boss. “Am I authorized to raise this offer with him?” I asked.
“Yes,” came the reply. But then right at the end of the conversation, the Edwards rep added a new wrinkle: “Just to be clear, we’re going to talk to the Clinton people too. That’s not where John’s heart is, but he is at a point of maximum leverage now. We want to see what each of you is thinking.”
My initial reaction was that this was a nonstarter. Of course we wanted Edwards’s support and his message was certainly closer in spirit to ours than it was to Hillary’s. But political deals like this rarely work: people see right through them.
Plus I couldn’t imagine Obama agreeing this far out to lock in his running mate without going through any process or even being certain that we would be the ones making a selection.
Obama’s answer was quick and firm: he would cut no deals. If he won, he did not want to be locked in to any personnel matters, and he had little interest in deciding on a vice presidential pick in the heat of the primary campaign.
We decided he would talk to Edwards personally and make clear there could be no promises. During that conversation, Obama reiterated that we wanted John’s support and thought it would make a difference, and clearly there could be a potential role for him down the line.
But if he endorsed us now, there could be no hint of something concrete in the future.
Shortly after this I checked in with my Edwards contact. Clearly Edwards had already downloaded his conversation with Obama. The contact said that while John’s inclination was to be with Obama, it seemed the Clinton folks were more intent on gaining his support.
He did not allude to specifics, but the message was that Hillary might offer specific commitments. “Well ” I said, “we have made clear that we would value your support and think it would be very meaningful. I hope this is where you decided to hang your hat.”
I strongly doubted that Clinton was offering Edwards anything concrete, and certainly not the VP slot. She knew better than most how important decisions like this were, and I had a hard time believing that even a crucial endorsement on on this level, days before South Carolina, would warrant much more than a thank-you and a promise to talk further down the line.
I don’t know if Edwards sanctioned these diplomacy missions or the level of specificity and brazenness that was presented to us.The Edwards saga petered out after that … Eventually he endorsed us; it came at an important time, and we were grateful to have his support.
Last week, TPMDC outlined another campaign bombshell from the book – the Obama team orchestrated some of the Florida/Michigan mess in hopes of boxing in Clinton.
Late update: The Washington Post’ Greg Sargent spoke to the “Edwards adviser,” who says Plouffe’s account is “entirely accurate.”