EDITOR’S NOTE: NR White House Correspondent Byron York’s new book, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, details how MoveOn.org, George Soros, Michael Moore, 527 groups, Al Franken, and other Democratic activists built the biggest, richest, and best organized political movement in generations. The book reports that in 2003, as Democratic operatives were planning the campaign against President Bush, they obtained a copy of a top-secret Republican strategy plan authored by top White House political adviser Karl Rove. The following excerpt details how those operatives, as part of the effort to woo Soros and other multi-million dollar contributors, showed Soros the secret Rove plan during a crucial planning session at Soros’s Hamptons estate. After the meeting, Soros became the biggest campaign donor in American history, giving more than $25 million to the effort to defeat George W. Bush.
In June 2003, Soros announced he was pulling back from the pro-democracy work that his main foundation, the Open Society Institute, did in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union so that he could focus his attention on the United States. The change was necessary, Soros told reporters in Moscow, because the political scene in America had become “quite dangerous.” In the Bush administration, Soros explained, “the executive branch has come under the influence of a group of ideologues who have forgotten the first principle of an open society: that they don’t have a monopoly on truth.”
”What really got him energized was the foreign policy of this administration,” Soros’s chief of staff and political advisor, Michael Vachon, told me. “He was motivated by his conviction that the Bush administration’s foreign policy was leading the U.S. in a disastrous direction.” So Soros decided that Bush had to go.Of course, Soros, a Hungarian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, had just one vote. But he had a lot of money. Still, even a man of Soros’s wealth and reach didn’t know quite how one went about toppling a president. So he called in the experts, or,more accurately, he had his expert–Vachon–call in the experts. Vachon told me he got in touch with two Democratic political consulting firms, TSD Communications, based in Washington, D.C., and M&R Strategic Services, with major offices in D.C. and in Portland, Oregon, and asked them to come up with suggestions for a Soros-funded anti-Bush campaign.
I asked Mark Steitz, the “S” in TSD Communications, what Soros wanted. “He said, ‘I am concerned about the direction our country is going under this guy [Bush],’” Steitz, a former communications director for the Democratic National Committee and top advisor to Jesse Jackson, told me. “‘I want to know what are the strategies that could be used to change this. Are there investments that could be made that could make a difference? How would you do this?’ He approached it in a way that, I might imagine, he approaches investments.”
Steitz and his colleagues, along with a separate team from M&R, studied the issue. Should Soros pour a lot of cash into anti-Bush television advertising? Should he pour it into Democratic efforts to win back Congress? Would the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which Soros had vigorously supported, be a significant handicap in the effort?
Both groups of consultants came to the same conclusion. Rejecting an old-style, big-money TV campaign, Steitz and his colleagues argued that Soros could have the most impact by concentrating his donations in what is called the “voter contact” area. Much more than the old idea of getting out the vote, “voter contact” means an intensive effort to identify and profile potential voters in every voting district in critical swing states, getting in touch with them long before the election, and then keeping up with them, nurturing them, and making sure they get to the polls on Election Day. In July 2003, the consultants’ team combined their research to make a presentation to Soros at his home in Southampton, the same Long Island estate where, a few months later, the billionaire would receive a fund-raising appeal from MoveOn’s Wes Boyd.
Steitz was a true believer in the new approach, which was a radical departure from older mass-audience appeals of television ads and direct mail. As I talked with Steitz about how he and the consultant team had prepared the presentation for Soros, I learned that the plan had been heavily influenced by two factors. One–no surprise–was the success that Democratic-supporting labor unions had had in their get-out-the vote efforts. But the other, perhaps more powerful, influence on Steitz’s thinking–big surprise–was a secret, cutting-edge political strategy document prepared by Karl Rove, the president’s top political advisor. The document, a PowerPoint presentation that outlined GOP strategy in the 2002 midterm elections and laid the groundwork for a similar strategy in 2004, had been made “unintentionally available” to Democrats in the first months of 2003, Steitz told me. It was not clear just how that happened–was it stolen? lost? leaked?–but once the document fell into Democratic hands, it was shared, e-mail to e-mail, among a number of top party strategists in Washington.
One of them was Steitz, who read it eagerly and was deeply impressed. “A big influence on all this [the Soros plan] was the Rove PowerPoint presentation,” Steitz told me. “It’s a remarkable document.” Armed with that knowledge, the strategists made their presentation, and during that presentation, they actually showed Soros portions of the Republicans’ secret plan. “The purpose [of presenting the GOP document] was to show the importance of voter contact,”Vachon told me. Soros might as well have been briefed by Karl Rove himself.
When Steitz told me the story, I immediately thought of a minor sensation in Washington political circles in June 2002, when a Democratic Senate aide found a CD-ROM lying on the ground in Lafayette Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The aide had no idea what was on the unmarked disk, but soon found that it was the full text of two PowerPoint presentations. One was a slide show to accompany a speech by Rove, and the other was meant to accompany a presentation by Rove’s top aide, Ken Mehlman, who at the time was White House political director and who would later become the manager of the president’s reelection campaign. The subject of both presentations was the then-upcoming 2002 House and Senate midterm elections. There were a few embarrassing news stories about the lost disk–the presentations contained some less-than-optimistic assessments of Republican chances in a couple of Senate contests at a time when the GOP was publicly saying chances looked good. But the story soon faded.
The PowerPoint presentation that Steitz and other Democrats had was a completely different document–much more detailed and sophisticated. It was apparently acquired by Democrats sometime in the late spring of 2003. I asked Steitz if he would show it to me, and he agreed. What I saw was a remarkable work. It’s no wonder it had a profound effect on the Soros group.
The presentation, titled the “72 Hour Task Force,” contained the results of a “top to bottom review,” ordered by Rove, of GOP turnout efforts in the 2000 race.What was perhaps most remarkable about it was that it was a harrowingly self-critical assessment of the Bush campaign’s performance. The essential question it asked was,Why did we come so close to losing? To find an answer, Rove began by taking a sober look at the difference between preelection state polls, which often showed Bush leading by significant margins, and the actual results of the election, in which Bush sometimes squeaked by. “In Arizona, the polling said we would win by ten, but we won by just six,” the presentation said. “In Florida, the polling said we would win by two–we won by just a chad.” That trend, Rove concluded, held true in nearly every other state Bush won.
As Rove looked ahead to 2004, he saw no particular reason for optimism. “Perhaps the president’s leadership will lead to a realignment of the electorate, but we would be foolish to plan on it,” the presentation said. Therefore, victory would probably go to whichever side was most successful in getting its voters to the polls. And the answer to that problem was deceptively simple: Rove’s prescription was to “Get People Back into Campaigns.” That did not mean simply asking GOP activists to try harder. Instead, the document said, it meant fundamentally rethinking the way the party motivated its voters and producing a blueprint for winning the next “turnout war.” The “72 Hour Task Force” was that blueprint.
Rove was particularly impressed with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s turnout plan in the 2000 New York Senate race. “Arguably the prototype for an exhaustive grassroots campaign,” the Clinton plan was a six-month timeline, organized “down to the block level,” with impressive big-labor support. The result simply blew away anything the GOP was doing at the time.” Unfortunately, too many of our campaigns make the mistake of believing that we can simply pay to send mail and phone calls that will achieve the same result,” Rove said. Instead, he advocated using the labor union principle–to “get people to take responsibility for as small a number of voters as possible”–in a Republican context, that is, without labor unions. Rove wrote that the campaign should rely on highly motivated volunteers and make each responsible for reaching a relatively small number of people. If a campaign made a volunteer responsible for shepherding the votes of too many people–say, 4,000–then “you might as well give them 40,000.” In other words, no one could keep up, or make personal contact, with so many voters. But if a worker was given responsibility for, say, 85 voters, then that worker could keep tabs on each one. Voters, Rove noted, are inundated with political ads and e-mails and phone calls, and “person-to-person contact cuts through the clutter.” The presentation went on to describe extensive tests the Rove team conducted in off-year elections. Picking two similar state or local races, Rove’s strategists poured money for old-fashioned politicking into one, and money for heavy voter contact into the other. The voter contact model won each time.
The copy of the PowerPoint that became “unintentionally available” to Democrats was rich in the details of Rove’s testing models and conclusions. It contained not only the graphic slides to be presented to private GOP audiences, but also the script that the presenter used to describe the project. For Democrats, it was a gold mine of information. “It’s really nice,” Steitz told me. “The script is attached. I’ve been a student of it.”
After the election, I asked Rove himself whether he knew at the time that Democrats had obtained a copy of the PowerPoint presentation. I asked the questions in the middle of a wide-ranging discussion of election strategy in which Rove was quite voluble, but when I got to the PowerPoint, his answers became very brief.
“Yes, I knew that at the time.”
“Did you know how it got into Democratic hands?”
“Were you surprised that it did?”
“How did you react?”
“Problematic.” That was Rove-speak for saying he viewed something as a potentially difficult situation.
But what was bad news for Rove and the Bush campaign was good news for George Soros. And on that summer day in Southampton, as he viewed Rove’s secret PowerPoint, Soros was clearly fascinated with the nuts and bolts of political organizing. “He was sort of leaning forward and saying, ‘So they go door-to-door to the same place?’” Steitz recalled. It was not long before Soros was sold.
But how would the voter contact idea be put into action? To address that part of things, the consultant team had invited two of the most important and successful organizers in Democratic politics: Ellen Malcolm, founder of the pro-choice political network EMILY’s List, the largest political action committee in the country, and Steve Rosenthal, recently of the AFL-CIO, one of the best ground-level organizers in all of politics.Malcolm and Rosenthal were already planning to emphasize voter contact in the 2004 race, working through their new group, America Coming Together, or ACT, a 527 organization that would be allowed to accept unlimited contributions.
In a sense, Soros and his giving partner, Peter Lewis, were ahead of the activists. When I asked Malcolm what the group talked about after the consultants had made their presentation, she said that the talk quickly got deep into the details. “We had a lot of conversation about how it was all going to operate,” she told me. “How did the coalition work? Who was going to make decisions? I remember Peter Lewis saying, ‘If I’m mad about something that’s happening in Ohio, who do I call on the phone and say, Who’s responsible, it’s all screwed up?’ And we hadn’t really started. I mean, we had the concept, we knew what we wanted to build in terms of the canvassing and the voter contact, but we had a lot of things to work out.”
After the presentation, Soros said he wanted to think about it overnight. But he didn’t take long to decide. “By the end of the weekend, it was clear that he was in,” Steitz said. And in in a big way: Malcolm told me that she and Rosenthal walked away with commitments for a total of $23 million from Soros, Lewis, and a few others at the meeting. Within weeks, Soros began writing checks to ACT. First came $1 million on August 19. Then $2 million on September 12. Then another $2 million on December 23. And then $4.55 million to the Joint Victory Fund, an umbrella organization that then distributed the money to ACT, on April 15, 2004. In the beginning, Soros had pledged $10 million to ACT and other Democratic 527s. Then the number became $15 million. Then $20 million. Then $25 million. And then more. The 527s had never seen that amount of money come in from one person at one time. Soros would become the biggest donor in history.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Soros’s money for Democrats. And not just the money, but the message the money sent. “Go back to what the political culture was like at that time,” Malcolm told me. “Democrats were pretty damned depressed. Bush was running roughshod, there was a lot of dissatisfaction, why weren’t we fighting back more?…One of the important pieces of [Soros’s] contribution, I think, was to signal to potential donors that he had looked at what was going on and that this was pretty exciting, and that he was going to stand behind it, and it was the real deal.” And indeed, once Soros began giving, and word spread that he was giving, other contributions began streaming in. Soros, ACT, and the Democratic Party–with an enormous and wholly unintentional assist from Karl Rove–were in business.