12 November 2008

On the McCain campaign, Part III

Fifth, it must be said again: In an act of sheer political malpractice, Gov. Palin was badly mishandled. I supported her selection in late August because I believed that she could reach across the aisle to disaffected supporters of Sen. Clinton, as well as highlight McCain's independent credentials like no other candidate except Sen. Lieberman. I'm unsure about whether I will support her in 2012 (given that she's damaged goods, it's doubtful). I'm also unsure of how to react to the backbiting that reared its head in the campaign's final days, which all too often implicated Palin as a know-nothing crank. I don't believe she's dumb, as many liberals do. I do, however, understand why many people believe she is. 

And that's Steve Schmidt's fault.

Palin gave a slam-bang performance at the RNC in late August, with many conservatives (including the Gipper's son, Michael) calling her "the next Ronald Reagan." I was far less effuse with my praise, but noted that she has the unteachable political skill of effectively twisting the knife with a smile on her face. Bill Clinton, among few others, was great at this. Her approval rating back in Alaska is in the 80s, and she's wildly popular in her home state for a reason: She's shown that rare instinct to kick party demagogues in the teeth from time to time, and she's an incredibly skilled politician. 

I believed that Schmidt, Rick Davis, Mark Salter and the rest of the McCain team needed to blast her out to everyone who would listen. What good does it do to add a tremendously skilled, genuinely likable politician to the ticket and limit her to three major interviews in six weeks? Further, what use is it to use her only to toss red meat to long-since-converted supporters at highly scripted campaign rallies? If she was added to the ticket to appeal to undecideds, why not use her to target them?

In her interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, the highly coached Palin painfully grasped for bulletpoint after bulletpoint. Many of her answers made no sense given the context of the question. Even when Couric tossed her a softball, asking about the media outlets from which she gets her news, Palin stammered, then answered, "All of them." It was a cringe-inducing moment. She was over-coached and overly saturated with many of the same talking points that McCain hammered at every day. Steve Schmidt, a highly disciplined GOP operative, believes in driving home a consistent message day after day. With Palin, it backfired.

And when these train wrecks of interviews were the only points of reference that voters had to judge Palin, the opinions that she was "dumb" or "ignorant" were certainly well-founded. Why limit her? Why shouldn't she go on Larry King, Chris Matthews or the late-night talk shows? Everyone makes gaffes -- that's to be expected. 

The vice-presidential debate was a classic example of why I believed Palin, if used wisely, could have been a tremendous asset to the McCain campaign. She talked forcefully, appeared confident, made a number of very good points, hit Sen. Biden hard on several occasions and was generally affable. At the end of the debate, it seemed that both she and Biden had genuinely enjoyed each other's company. She more than held her own. Every one of her redeeming qualities came out, even though she hardly won the debate on substance. 

I talked in a prior post about the die having been cast. By the time the VP debate rolled around, previously independent voters had already decided they had seen enough.

Perhaps I made a mistake in supporting the choice of Palin, as I assumed that she knew at least as much as I do about national and international affairs. Perhaps I made too great an assumption in endorsing her selection as VP that she could name one Supreme Court decision that she disagreed with, other than Roe v. Wade. And perhaps I overestimated her ability to form complete sentences or tie her shoes. 

I don't think I believe Palin is that stupid. And if she is, Schmidt & Co. made a horrific mistake by choosing her. 

Sixth, the McCain team's ground game was just awful. State party leaders openly complained to the press about the lack of communication between Schmidt & Co. and the rank and file. While Obama's team sent community organizers into places like Iowa and New Hampshire, working from the ground up, by all accounts, McCain's team did very little to attract new recruits. (Again, check out Newsweek's 7-part expose', which lays out Obama's ground game in detail. The level of organization was remarkable, and it probably will revolutionize how candidates campaign for president.) Point six is very simple: In an election where the playing field was already tilted against him, McCain and his team did themselves no favors by having a terrible get-out-the-vote campaign and ground game come election day.

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