“The People, Not The Powerful:” Center for the Political Future director uses past experiences to inform work moving forward

Robert Shrum, director of the Center for the Political Future at USC, has worked on the political campaigns of George McGovern, Al Gore and John Kerry. (Daily Trojan file photo)

It was the year 2000, and Al Gore’s campaign for President was struggling — stranded between embracing Bill Clinton’s identity and creating one of its own.

Robert Shrum, Democratic consultant and speechwriter for over 30 years, knew that a change was needed. So he thought up a new slogan, “The People, Not The Powerful,” a progressive, populist message that signified a break from President Clinton.

The change was met with backlash, with the Clinton camp insisting that it would doom Gore with moderate swing voters. Soon afterwards, it was scrapped. After Gore’s loss, the slogan was largely viewed as a failure, both alienating and insincere. However, according to Shrum, Gore wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying he wishes he had emphasized the slogan more during his campaign. 

“The struggle for Gore was not an internal one in which he was trying to be like Clinton,” Shrum, who is now the director of the Center for the Political Future at USC, said. “It was all the pressure that was coming from the President to basically say ‘I’m just running for a third Clinton term.”

Such is a theme of Shrum’s career, who, despite success on senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns and reverence as a speechwriter, lost all eight presidential campaigns he worked on and is often criticized — fairly or not — for contributing to the Democratic Party’s leftward turn and losses on a national stage.

However, politics have changed since Shrum was a speechwriter for Democratic nominee for President George McGovern in 1972, and even since Shrum left the campaign trail after John Kerry’s 2004 election loss. A new progressive movement in the Democratic Party has emerged, pushing Shrum, once a populist force in Democratic politics, towards the center of the party. 

“I haven’t changed at all. Now people would say I’m center left, and there would be people further left who would say I am insufficiently left,” Shrum said. “I’m the same person I always have been. I’m an FDR, Kennedy Democrat.”

While the party has changed over time, Shrum labels the party the same way. 

“Biden is a progressive, he’s center left and he sure stands for a lot of important and ambitious ideas,” Shrum said. “This $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill is going to achieve a huge amount of progressive change in the country.”

The political landscape in the United States has undergone shifts beyond just that of the Democratic Party. On Shrum’s first general election presidential campaign, George McGovern’s, he won one state to Richard Nixon’s 49.

“I think [a 1972 like map] is almost impossible,” Shrum said. “The country has sorted itself out in two different political blocs.”

At other points in his career, states like West Virginia were solidly Democratic. Now, Senator Joe Manchin is the last remaining statewide-elected Democrat. Shrum said that Biden, if successful, can start to make inroads in the areas that Democrats have lost, in part because of his natural appeal to white-working class, Rust Belt voters or “Reagan Democrats,” as Shrum said.

“You’ve got to make a difference in their lives. You’ve got to show them that there’s something more important than grievance politics. You’ve got to give them a sense of hope for the future,” Shrum said.

Running the Center for The Political Future

As the Director of the USC Center for the Political Future, the country’s division has provided problems, but it has also added purpose.

“It’s certainly challenging because of the polarization, but it’s also the need for what we’re trying to do, which is to get people, even if they differ, to respect each other and respect the truth,” Shrum said.

Around the country, many colleges have experienced large student protests when controversial speakers are brought on campus. Shrum is undeterred, though, dedicated to bringing people with diverse political opinions to the Center, from then Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to Joel Pollack from Breitbart News. At USC, Shrum has not received similar backlash.

Kambiz Akhavan, the executive director of the Center for the Political Future, elaborated on Shrum’s commitment to highlight different political opinions, including the decision to bring Republican strategist Mike Murphy on as a co-director of the Center.

“The fact that he did that, brought in Mike Murphy to be a co-director, to share the top leadership position, for someone who is his adversary, who’s a Republican, with whom he disagrees on many issues, says a lot about [Shrum]’s intentions,” Akhavan said. 

However, in today’s fraught political environment, when politics can infringe on truth, bringing in speakers from all different backgrounds can become complicated. 

Shrum said that the Center has two standards for speakers: respecting truth and respecting each other. The line, though, can be unclear.

“It’s hard to come up with a single standard, but you know it when you see it, and you just have to use your judgment,” Shrum said.

As the political landscape has shifted, so have the perspectives of the students he teaches, Shrum said. 

“Students are much more deeply engaged with politics than they were in 2005 or 2006. That’s partly a reaction to Trump. It’s partly a reaction to the crises we’ve been through,” Shrum said. “Students worry a lot about what their world is going to be like when they get out, what their job prospects are going to be like, what kind of country we’re going to have.”

Shrum’s former student Jorgel Chavez, a senior majoring in political science and graduate student studying public administration, ran for office last November and was elected city councillor of Bell Gardens.  

On the first day of class with Shrum, called “Media and Message: Great Races From The Senate to the White House,” Chavez remembers walking into a standing-room only classroom, with students standing in the back, excited to hear from someone who has experience working with people like the Kennedys. 

After taking another class with Shrum, this time a public policy course, Chavez forged a relationship with him. During his campaign for City Council of Bell Gardens, a city with 40,000 people, Chavez would call Shrum to ask for advice about running a grassroots campaign, his campaign’s finances and specific situations within the campaign.

“I was always very calm, knowing that he was able to listen to me … and I’m glad that after the election results came out, I called him, and I thanked him for everything,” Chavez said.

With over 30 years in politics and 15 years in academia behind him, Shrum hopes that, with the Trump presidency behind us, the political landscape can improve.

“If we get out of this health crisis and the economy starts moving ahead, I think the chances for a more reasoned and mutually respectful politics go up,” he said.

The Center for the Political Future, he hopes, can play a small role in that. 

“I have no illusion that somehow or other, we’re single handedly going to reshape American public dialogue, but I think we can contribute to that process,” Shrum said.