Was Steve Schmidt Qualified to Be McCain's Campaign Manager?

In a recent article at the National Review, John McCain’s failed 2008 campaign manager Steve Schmidt is quoted as saying “it will be a very long time before questions about capability and preparedness are not a part of the process.” The implication is that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was neither “prepared” nor “capable” to be vice president in the 2008 cycle, and that now hangs over the current vice presidential selection process. 

In his comments about the VP selection process, Schmidt indicates a pretty simple concept-- “capability and preparedness” are characteristics that a presidential nominee would seek in his or her running mate.

However, Schmidt’s comments indicate that the selection process and the entire campaign he was involved in during 2008 did not consider such factors, which leads one to ask, “did Steve Schmidt have the ‘capability and preparedness’ necessary to perform his role as campaign strategist?"

In other words, let the vetting of Steve Schmidt begin.

The 42 year-old New Jersey native’s campaign experience started with work for four failed state and national races during his mid to late twenties—ranging from the Kentucky Attorney General’s race in 1995 to working as Communication Director for Lamar Alexander’s 2000 presidential bid. He also managed failed Lt. Governor and Senatorial bids in California in 1998

Schmidt later worked in a few Republican party positions before becoming both a part of the Bush White House and the Bush re-election campaign in 2004, working with Karl Rove and overseeing the re-election “war room.” In fact, he was often called a “Rove protégé,” playing a senior role in the Bush 2004 re-election and  later working for the Bush administration on Iraq media communication and with the confirmation processes of Bush Supreme Court appointees . He later worked on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign in 2006

Steve Schmidt was picked up by the McCain campaign in December of 2006 as a senior adviser to Senator McCain’s presidential campaign-in-waiting. Schmidt was later given “full operational control” of McCain’s presidential bid, amidst some dissatisfaction with the campaign’s trajectory (emphasis added):

He will report to [campaign manager Rick] Davis, but all others in the campaign will report to him. Schmidt will have control over message, advertising, scheduling, advance work and the political operation -- every major area other than fundraising. Davis will retain control over that area and will focus more of his attention on the selection of a running mate and convention planning.

In short, Schmidt was in control of the political and messaging operations of the campaign. Two messaging strategies proved to be costly for the McCain campaign—the handling of both McCain and Palin in general and the error of suspending the campaign in the midst of the financial crisis. The campaign was criticized for waiting nearly two weeks between Governor Palin’s introduction as the VP pick and her first interview with Charlie Gibson. 

E-mails of Governor Palin’s obtained by the Anchorage Daily News in January of 2009 noted that prior to being selected as the VP candidate, Governor Palin was slated to give interviews to Newsweek, NPR, Fox News and a host of other outlets at the RNC convention as a McCain campaign surrogate. Yet after she was picked as VP, she was silenced and kept from the media. 

This poor campaign messaging approach and shackling of the personable Palin allowed the biased media—including the likes of Tina Fey—to set the tone and narrative of the debate over Palin. Thus, much of the public to this day believe Fey’s words about the proximity of Palin’s home to Russia were instead Palin’s words. The media drove the campaign to be defensive and incoherent rather than assertive and clear.

A third messaging strategy sprouted from the failures of the first two. Leaked memos from the waning days of the McCain campaign indicated that Schmidt and his buddies aimed to protect Schmidt’s reputation in the impending electoral loss. These memos and Schmidt’s desire to deflect blame likely provided the impetus for the anonymous lies spread about Governor Palin’s geographic knowledge following the campaign. The strategy from the leaked memos included reaching out to “influential reporters.” One of these reporters included Game Change co-author Mark Halperin

Fast forward to 2012, and Schmidt is still attempting to save face by projecting his failures as an incapable strategist onto the Vice Presidential candidate he helped choose and who provided the only spark in an otherwise exceedingly dull campaign. This is why Schmidt played an admitted instrumental role as one of the sources for Halperin’s book and in the HBO adaptation of the book, which fallaciously disparaged Palin while painting a sympathetic image of Schmidt. 

For example, the film adaptation of Game Change, whose premiere Schmidt attended, misrepresented the Troopergate scandal of which Palin was exonerated. Palin’s legal counsel at the time, Thomas van Flein, recounted his first interaction with Schmidt:

The legal eagle recalls his less than positive first encounter with Schmidt, a phone conversation in which the campaign manager yelled repeatedly and used profanity in trying to access emails from Palin’s tenure  as governor.

“I was troubled to learn he was the campaign manager,” says Van Flein, who ended up participating in several campaign conference calls featuring Schmidt.

“My impression was that the campaign was being run by someone who was in over his head and was too emotional to handle the pressure of a campaign was reinforced,” he recalls.

How Steve Schmidt Failed to Vet Obama and Highlight Palin’s Record

During the 2008 election, the McCain campaign touted Governor Palin’s reform credentials by noting her rejection of the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” selling the expensive governor’s jet, and signing bipartisan ethics reform into law. However, the McCain campaign never noted that Governor Palin signed legislation in April of 2008 reforming Alaska’s retirement pension system and addressing an $8 billion unfunded liability. The reform led to a 34.6% reduction in liabilities owed by the state of Alaska following Palin’s tenure. So while Senator McCain was emphasizing how bipartisan record on other issues would mean that he would be able to reform federal entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, his running mate had already passed a state level equivalent of such a reform in a bipartisan manner.

An issue that is always at the forefront of voters’ minds is jobs. The unemployment problem that has been exacerbated by the Obama administration had already begun when the 2008 campaign was underway. The McCain campaign did not note that in Palin’s first full year in office, 2007, Alaska saw the 6th biggest unemployment improvement in the country up from 28th the year before she took office. Senator McCain had the opportunity to augment his job creation credentials by highlighting his running mate’s record, but neither he nor his team, including the man in charge of campaign messaging, chose to do so. 

Beyond his failure to highlight aspects of Palin’s record that would bolster the McCain campaign, Schmidt and the McCain campaign’s greatest negligence came in not vetting candidate Obama.

Schmidt ran the McCain campaign largely in a vacuum, which cannot be done in a political campaign, especially when the media repeatedly carries water for an opponent’s campaign. Schmidt played the 2008 campaign like a game of solitaire using a 48 card deck because he chose to hide the aces. Politics isn’t solitaire. It’s poker. There is an opponent, and there’s a strategy you must employ by fully recognizing the power of the cards you have and by knowing how your opponent operates. 

The “Obama vs. McCain” narratives the McCain actually did recognize and try to run with were nothing more than hypotheticals based on the potential public perception of Obama (“celebrity”, “non partisan pretender” etc). These were not narratives comparing an American hero to an Alinsky radical. They didn’t dissect Obama’s associations, highlight his activist past, or appropriately highlight his nearly non-existent political record of leadership. 

Because of Schmidt’s negligence and that of many on the McCain campaign staff, Palin’s strengths and achievements were hidden along with President Obama’s extreme associations, weaknesses, and lack of achievements. And this is primarily why Andrew Breitbart felt the need to vet Obama during the 2012 election cycle.


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