ABC News' Jonathan Karl reports: Steve Hildebrand is one of most skilled political strategists the Democrats have. He played a critical role in getting Barack Obama elected President – first as the director of his campaign for the Iowa caucuses and later as the Deputy National Campaign Manager during the 2008 general election.
So why, as Democrats face their toughest midterm election since 1994, is Hildebrand on the sidelines?
I caught up with him at his home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to find out. He offered a blunt assessment of Democratic “cowards” who he believes will lose because they are running away from their core principles – and the President. It was a fascinating discussion.
Be sure to check out our "Top Line" episode today for more analysis.
JONATHAN KARL: Alright we’re here with Steve Hildebrand, one of the top democratic strategists in the country here on your home turf in South Dakota. STEVE HILDEBRAND: Good to be here. JONATHAN KARL: So, Steve, how bad is it going to be for the Democrats in these mid-terms? STEVE HILDEBRAND: I don’t think it has to be bad. I think if our Democratic candidates would actually be proud of to stand for their votes that they’ve taken, not all of them, but some. People who have supported health care shouldn’t run from it. They should be as proud of that vote as any vote they’ve taken in their lives. This is actually going to help people in a pretty serious way. It’s not going to hurt people. JONATHAN KARL: And is that what you see people doing though because they’re afraid this vote is going to be used against them. In fact it’s already being used against them by Republicans they’re running away from it, running away from the President. STEVE HILDEBRAND: Yeah, and the fact that they’re cowards in such a serious way. I mean, is this about their reelection or is this about helping people? What are they in politics for? What are they in government for, if they’re not in government to help people? They should simply get out. They shouldn’t run for reelection. And we should put people in there who are strong leaders, who want to do something to help people. That health care bill is going to help young people, old people, poor people, middle-income people. It’s vitally important to this country and any one of them that walks away from it, isn’t proud of that vote, is a coward. JONATHAN KARL: If the current trajectory remains the way it is for the next two months, and the kind of Democratic strategy remains the way it is, do the democrats lose the House? STEVE HILDEBRAND: The Democratic strategy right now is to run from the president, run from important proposals that help this country. If we’re not going to do something about health care, if we’re not going to do something about climate change, if we’re not going to do something about the economy, about the deficit, about the war, Washington is going to get punished. The Democrats might get punished more because they’re in power, but Washington in general is going to get punished. And you’ve seen it in Republican primaries across the country. You’ve seen it in Democratic primaries across the country. And you’re going to see it with a lot of just pure incumbents from both parties in November. They’re getting punished because they’re not dealing with the issues. They’re not dealing with the real problems that we face as a country. And they should be punished. Stand up and lead or get out of the way. And you might be replaced with someone worse, but you know, those are the options that are sometimes given to people.
JONATHAN KARL: So on the current trajectory do the Democrats lose the house? STEVE HILDEBRAND: I think democrats can hold the House, hold the Senate. Are they going to do that? I don’t know. If they start standing up for principle and start campaigning in a way that makes voters proud, they’ll probably win. JONATHAN KARL: And if they don’t, if they continue this strategy- STEVE HILDEBRAND: If they don’t, if they run scared like they’ve been doing, they’re going to lose. JONATHAN KARL: Even in those states, even in those districts, and there are 48 of them held by democrats that were run by McCain…Where in states where the President is not popular, where the poling suggests many of them, the health care bill is unpopular, even there you think that what they need to do is embrace it all? STEVE HILDEBRAND: There’s a difference between embracing it all and saying that we have to face our problems. People can say what they want about President Obama, but he’s facing the problems. He’s taken on the problems. He could use a Congress that would help him with it and maybe we could get something done more aggressively. But he’s dealing with the problems. JONATHAN KARL: And where is this coming from, where is this run against the President, and we’re seeing a lot of that, we’re just getting into the fall campaign and we’re already seeing ads by democrats touting their ability to stand up to their own party, to the president. STEVE HILDEBRAND: It’s politics. JONATHAN KARL: But you’re saying it’s not smart politics. STEVE HILDEBRAND: I think its stupid politics. Those same people embraced Obama in 2008 and Obama is no different now than he was then. He’s siding with the same issues that he campaigned on. Don’t run from him. JONATHAN KARL: In a year like this when the Democrats are in danger of losing the House, even the Senate, you'd think they could use a guy like you out there. STEVE HILDEBRAND: (Laughs) No one is knocking the door down to try to get me to help, so I’m pretty set on the fact that I'm not going to go help people that don't deserve the help they need where they are not standing up strong as Democrats. I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to encourage other people to do it either. JONATHAN KARL: How many of the people that are actually running these campaigns, back in Washington, the committees, are they agreeing with your message on this? STEVE HILDEBRAND: No, I don't think so. There is a pretty specific strategy of winning a majority at any cost. The Democrats do it. The Republicans do it. It’s winning at any cost. I'm not interested in that. Do I want to hold the majorities? Absolutely. Do I think it’s better for the long term for things I believe in to have the Democrats control the majority in the Senate and the House? Absolutely, no question. But, at a point. they need to be told that: You had every opportunity to hold those majorities, by doing what was right, to stand up for the things you campaigned on, the thing that Democrats elected you for, and they didn't do that. There were too many of them that took a walk, and the Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate allowed them to do that so that they could get reelected. This is where we're at now. We face a possible loss for both the House and Senate Democratic majorities, and I really believe it comes down to whether or not you chose to lead. And, I don't think they chose to lead. I think they ran scared from day one. They made it impossible for Barack Obama to get his agenda passed the way it needed to be passed. JONATHAN KARL: How do you think the President is handling the midterms? Is he doing enough? STEVE HILDEBRAND: Oh yea, I mean I think he's doing a ton. He knows the stakes. He clearly knows that it’s very important for his future as president to have these majorities, for a lot of reasons, for political reasons, but more importantly, for policy reasons. JONATHAN KARL: Is it your sense it’s frustrating to the White House to see these Democrats out running for reelection by running against him, or is it that they've signed off to this win at any cost and if you have to criticize us to.. STEVE HILDEBRAND: I think they know these politicians are going to do whatever it takes.