In the wake of Sen. McCain's defeat, I've struggled to apportion blame among the various actors, and to decide where I think the sure-to-be-reformed GOP should be headed. I'll take on the GOP on a different day -- there is much sorting out and soul-searching to do. But what of McCain's campaign?
One thing must be made clear: From early July until the selection of Gov. Palin as McCain's #2, the McCain campaign was nearly flawless. Steve Schmidt -- the Bush/Cheney '04 communications guru, and Team Maverick's chief strategist who formally took the reins in late June '08 -- was fighting an uphill battle from the start, and the fact that the McCain campaign kept their candidate within the margin of error, and even at times ahead, of their opponent was impressive. But the country obviously was tired of the Republican Party, thanks in large part to the incompetence of the Bush administration, and Sen. Obama found himself with a perfect storm at his back.
The playing field was tilted from day one, no matter who the Democratic nominee was. I believe Sen. Clinton would have won by an even bigger margin than did Obama. So McCain's team was forced to, at times, take an outside-the-box approach.
As a result, they clearly did not run a perfect campaign -- far from it. From early September to the finish line, I was bitterly disappointed in Schmidt's operation.
Also, to all you conservatives: Let's live in reality and not expect that every post-mortem account of the McCain campaign is being exaggerated by liberal media elites. Media bias pervades everything from Joe Klein columns to the "all-star panel" on FOX News. That's precisely why you get your news from more than one source. Newsweek recently ran a fascinating seven-part series on the McCain and Obama operations, as the mag's embedded reporters enjoyed virtually unbridled access to the two campaigns (as well as that of Sen. Clinton) for over a year. While you might think that each one of these reporters has an axe to grind, please remember that the election is over.
What have the last eight years taught us? That Republicans can and do make mistakes. Sometimes big ones.
So where exactly did McCain's campaign -- and Steve Schmidt, in particular -- fall short?
First, the McCain team never settled on a narrative or a message to drive until it was far too late. Footsoldier in the Reagan Revolution? Experience? Change? Country first? Which one was it? For 18 months, Obama ran on "change we can believe in." Truth be told, campaign slogans mean nothing to me, and I believe Obama's obsessive fixation with platitudes was a clear effort to dress up his extremist record. (The record and the left-wing platform are there, folks -- he just didn't run on them.) But they exist to drive the campaign's narrative and to reach undecided voters.
So what was McCain's message? Robert Draper wrote a fascinating account of Team Maverick's meandering ways that appeared in the Oct. 26 edition of the New York Times Magazine. It wasn't meant to be critical of McCain -- Draper was complementary toward the candidate and told the story of the McCain team attempting to recast the Senior Senator upon the happenings of major events along the way -- Obama's trip to Europe, the selection of Gov. Palin, the onset of the Wall Street meltdown, and so on. Each time, the campaign's narrative changed. Obama's stayed the same.
I've mentioned this in a prior post, but it's worth repeating: David Brooks (a longtime McCain admirer) pointed out that Sen. Obama's operation was very much about the whole being more than simply the sum of the parts -- that is, while Obama's concrete policy proposals might be mentioned here and there, Team Hope ran a "change" movement. The Hopemonger seized upon an electoral discontent, simultaneously reached out to disaffected voters, and drove a consistent narrative for 18 months. Every single response or press conference was couched within this overarching message. It was truly a brilliantly executed campaign.
Second, McCain's economic message (which clearly differs from the overall narrative of his campaign) was just awful. At the first debate -- during which the economic crisis dominated the first 40 minutes -- the candidate focused on earmark abuse, out-of-control spending, and stump-speech catchphrases like the DNA of bears in Montana or the Woodstock museum. No one disputes that pork-barrel earmarks and irresponsible spending are problems. But McCain's tepid, almost dismissive response to the Wall Street meltdown was highly damaging. During the second debate, Sen. McCain went the other way, taking a page from the John Edwards playbook, proposing that the Treasury Secretary buy up bad mortgages and renegotiate them. It was perhaps merely a coincidence, but Team Maverick chose to begin hitting Obama on Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko during this time. And what kind of message is that supposed to send to voters? That John McCain is more interested in negative personal attacks than solving the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Because that's exactly what swing voters heard.
What was most disappointing about McCain's directionless message during this time was that Sen. Obama was even less ready than McCain to handle the meltdown. The idea that Obama is prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude because he "ran" a presidential campaign for the better part of two years is beyond laughable. (I'm qualified to deal with this crisis because, well, I'm Barack Obama!) By that logic, any CEO of a company with more than a couple hundred employees is qualified to be the leader of the free world.