In 2004, Kerry staffers blamed her for botching the response to the Swift Boat attacks. Now she's back -- as the aggressive face of the Obama reelection effort.
Stephanie Cutter doesn't sound angry, just exasperated. "The way these oil billionaires and their front group completely ignore the truth is breathtaking," she says. "Let's take some crazy examples from their attack ad. They claim the administration gave money to build electric cars in Finland."
Here, Cutter pauses, blinks and shakes her head: "Um, no."
It's a simple video -- just Cutter, the president's deputy campaign manager, talking to the camera with the help of some explanatory graphics, while the hubbub of the Obama campaign headquarters buzzes behind her. The campaign uploaded it to YouTube in early May as a routine rapid-response effort to rebut an anti-Obama ad produced by Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing group funded in part by the Koch brothers, that was airing in some swing states.
But the video went viral beyond the campaign's wildest dreams. It has now been viewed more than 650,000 times, making it the sixth most popular of the more than 2,000 videos uploaded by the campaign. On YouTube, it has nearly 7,000 "likes" and is followed by page upon page of cheering comments from liberals excited to see the fight being taken to the other side. "'We're gonna call their BS when we see it.' I love her!" reads one.
Rank-and-file Democrats, it seems, have found a new champion in the very aptly named Cutter, who is increasingly visible as the Obama team's No. 1 B.S.-caller and all-around attack squad. On YouTube and cable TV, in conference calls with reporters and in memos from the campaign, she can reliably be found doing one thing: taking on Republicans and Mitt Romney.
With her blunt talk and relentless approach, Cutter epitomizes the hardball tone of the Obama re-elect. (If Obama's 2008 campaign had a viral-video mascot, by contrast, it was the mild-mannered Delawarean campaign manager David Plouffe, whose YouTube spots emphasized grassroots organizing and campaign mechanics.) It was Cutter who, in April, took issue with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus's claim that the GOP could no more be accused of waging a war on women than it could a war on caterpillars; where some might have seen an innocuous analogy, Cutter saw outrageous misogyny. The comment, she wrote in a speedily issued campaign press release, showed "how little regard leading Republicans, including Mitt Romney, have for women's health."
The 43-year-old Cutter is a Massachusetts native with middle-class roots who attended Smith College. She got her start in politics answering phones for then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, then went to work for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, becoming a communications staffer in the Clinton White House after the election (and getting a law degree at Georgetown at night).
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who got to know Cutter when she subsequently went to work for Sen. Ted Kennedy, said she was shaped by the combination of idealistic liberalism and combative maneuvering that defines Massachusetts Democratic politics.
"She's a genuine progressive, and she's a very competitive person," Shrum said in an interview. "She believes society ought to be fairer so that middle-class kids like she once was can get a break in life."
In Obamaworld, Cutter's ability to drive home a message with force and clarity is prized. "Stephanie brings the trifecta," said campaign manager Jim Messina -- "the ability to tell a simple story about complicated policy, a vast network, and a pitch-perfect political instinct. She separates what will matter to the media, and what will matter to voters, from the noise."
But Cutter's centrality to the Obama campaign is also a remarkable comeback story. Eight years ago, many doubted she would ever work in politics again after her stint as communications director for John Kerry's presidential campaign came in for a raft of criticism in the losing effort's post-election circular firing squad.
In many of the conversations I had about Cutter for this story, eventually my interlocutor would murmur: "Did you read the Newsweek story?" A harsh depiction of Cutter played a major role in the book-length election postmortem traditionally published by the magazine.
"It was a career-ending article," says one Democratic operative not affiliated with the Obama campaign. "The fact that it not only didn't end her career but she's now basically running the country -- it's impressive."
Cutter, in the magazine's account, was tagged with the decision not to respond more forcefully to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks -- what many regarded as the campaign's fatal mistake. Reporters took issue with her blunt manner, while fellow campaign staffers viewed her as controlling and difficult. "Kerry staffers snidely made a verb of her e-mail name (email@example.com)," according to Newsweek. "'To Scutter' meant to try to control or dominate. Its second meaning was cruder, 'to f--- something up.'"