Friday, July 4, 2008

Steve Schmidt

There are certain people in any political campaign who set the overall standard for the course of that campaign. Sometimes it's the candidate, but typically it is the leading campaign consultant, and the McCain campaign has just promoted Steve Schmidt to that position (he's been with the McCain campaign for quite a while, but has not been in charge.)

And who is Steve Schmidt? This is from Newsweek's campaign blog by Andrew Romano:

So what should we expect from Schmidt? A bald, barrel-chested "partisan pugilist" who labored under Karl Rove on Bush's 2004 bid--he also ran Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign--McCain's new guru "speaks in pre-fabricated, consumable, sharp morsels," according to Marc Ambinder. "McCain has learned from Schmidt that it's OK not to be a referee, that it's OK not to play the judge, that it's OK to draw contrasts with your opponents." In other words, he's learned to be an effective (if more traditional) Republican presidential candidate. Schmidt, 37, lacks his predecessors' deep emotional ties to the boss, so he's more likely to assess (and correct) the candidate's weaknesses with the objective eye of an outsider. That in mind, expect tighter message discipline from McCain--two other Rove vets, Nicole Wallace and Greg Jenkins, have joined McCain's communications team--and crisper, more consistent attacks on Obama, whom the campaign plans to paint as an unprincipled opportunist (in contrast to McCain, who "puts his country first"). Think more "professional." After all, it was Bush's Brain who gave Schmidt his nickname: "Bullet."

Will it help? Who knows. That said, if McCain is still trailing Obama by six points in the polls at the end of the summer, don't be surprised if he calls on John Weaver to, you know, recapture the magic of 2000.

Doesn't tell you all that much, but some personal experience might help to understand how this Rovian creep operates.

Back in 2006, Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for Governor of California against Phil Angelides. Angelides was way in the lead, though he was not well known outside the Sacramento area where he had been a successful real estate developer and served two terms as California State Treasurer. His lead against Schwarzenegger was based on the fact that he was a Democrat (and California has a large Democratic voter majority) and the fact that he had a very well thought out and laid out liberal agenda in opposition to what was then Schwarzenegger's crabbed and bullying "conservative" agenda.

The White House sent Schmidt and Matt Dowd out from Washington (where they primarily served the Cheney Office) to take care of Angelides and get Schwarzenegger re-elected in a landslide, which they immediately proceeded to do.

Dowd essentially remade Schwarzenegger's "brand" by turning him into a thoughtful, caring, compassionate quasi-liberal, while Schmidt worked the press masterfully by spreading smears and innuendo and lies about Angelides that many Californians still believe.

In fact, as soon as Dowd and Schmidt arrived in California, the media in the state adopted a virulently anti-Angelides narrative, all of them simultaneously, and obviously favored Schwarzenegger whom they had largely dismissed after his titanic failure to pass any of his "reform" initiatives in the 2005 election.

Within days we saw movement in the polls, away from Angelides and toward Schwarzenegger. By summer it was essentially over. Angelides was being crushed -- after starting out with quite a substantial lead -- and Schwarzenegger was very successfully remade from a mean and mean spirited Neanderthal into a Brand New Man.

Worked like a charm.

Obviously Schmidt's job on the McCain campaign has focused on media, and it will continue to. We've already seen some signs of what that focus can do: the utter frenzy recently unleashed by the media in response to Wes Clark suggesting on Face the Nation that being shot down over Vietnam and being held prisoner by the North Vietnamese was not in and of itself a qualification to be president.

We're seeing more of it right now: the concerted effort throughout the media to label Obama an opportunist and flip-flopper. We will see much more of it as the summer wears on, with the upshot likely to be a grand smear campaign, relentless and wearing, starting the day after the Democratic nomination.

Given the fact that Obama himself has given Schmidt et al plenty of ammunition of late, what with his various reversals and position "refinements", it's quite likely that McCain will rise in the polls as a consequence. He could well rise to the point where he is unbeatable. And it could happen very fast.

It would be nice if those who are advising the Obama campaign had any inkling, but they seem quite oblivious. They should have gotten out in front of what is to come a long time ago. Instead they have been forthrightly telling their candidate to tack to the right on issue after issue (after he already ran a camapaign largely to the right of Hillary and all the other Dems and barely won enough delegates to secure the nomination). At the rate he has been transforming himself into a Republican -- as opposed to just a conservative Democrat -- McCain can market himself as the "liberal".

It's absurd.

But there you are.


  1. Thanks, Ché! Interesting (and scary) stuff.

    The odds still favor Obama dodging "the Bullet," with roughly 75–80% saying the country is "on the wrong track" and McCain having, well, nothing to run on.

    As the McCain campaign moves the deck chairs around, there are questions of friction internally between Schmidt and still-campaign manager Rick Davis, and a culture mismatch between the McCainites and Bushies (not to mention a mismatch between Schmidt's Rovian tactics and the willingness of a lot of the country to fall for them this time around). It feels vaguely like inside-at-the-McCain-campaign has the potential to be a Clintonesque affair, with McCain being even more clueless about what to do about it.

    And I see Schmidt's aggressive approach not quite meshing with a McCain who doesn't seem as mentally sharp as he did just a few years ago and who, when he "says he wants to go to these places," say, Colombia and Mexico, the campaign says "of course."

    But, in any event, you're right, I think: whether or not Schmidt can start steering the rudderless McCain campaign, obliviousness on the part of the Obama campaign is not the optimal strategy. Perhaps the grassroots outcry of Obama supporters will act at least as a bit of a much-needed wake-up call.

  2. Jeff W:

    Good points all. The strains inside the McCain camp are very telling. He's a lousy candidate for the Rs, but he's got the media in thrall, and he's still plugging away in his addled, cootish way. There's a chance he won't take to the Schmidt makeover, either.

    But, boy, the transformation in the Schwarzenegger campaign, and the instantaneous turn around in the media regarding the 2006 governor's contest when Steve Schmidt and Matt Dowd arrived in California was and is startling.

    Angelides essentially lost the election the day they got here. He was a weaker candidate than Obama, of course, and Scwarzenegger is a much stronger personality than McCain, but he had to have a complete personality transplant (from Terminator to Kindergarten Cop, so it wasn't that hard!) and Angelides had to be demonized relentlessly -- with a sort of guarantee that he couldn't and wouldn't fight back. His natural nerdiness took care of that.

    Whether the same trick can be pulled off this time remains to be seen. But the Obama campaign better be armored up.

  3. Well, I'd guess that the Terminator/Kindergarten Cop Schwarzenegger was the perfect candidate for Schmidt to work with—he has the drive, charisma, and savviness to pull off any transformation. And McCain is probably the worst—he has none of "transformable" qualities that Schwarzenegger has nor is he an "empty vessel" like Bush was. He has a disagreeable "flinty individualism" with "a profoundly self-destructive aspect to it," (says conservative John Podhoretz). We'll see how Schmidt deals with all that.

    The endless list of "fundamentals" all overwhelmingly favor Obama, everyone knows, which makes his recent lurch to the right as inexplicable as it is self-defeating, But this is the US, after all, where somehow 38% of Americans still manage to describe themselves as Republicans or as leaning toward the GOP (the party that should have been relegated to the dustbin of history in 1932) and a mindless, juvenile establishment media shapes perceptions and the agenda—so anything can happen, of course.

    Anyway, always a pleasure to read your blog, Ché, and your comments on Glenn's blog. (The comments are sort of a "guilty pleasure." I feel like I shouldn't agree with them but I invariably do.)