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No Wonder These Guys Are Losing

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Sunday’s New York Times Magazine will feature a long article, available on the Times’ website now, offering an inside view of John McCain’s Presidential campaign, and it’s pretty easy to see why the race is in the state that it is today.

Based on interviews with top campaign officials, the article makes the point that, while Barack Obama has had the same campaign narrative from the day he announced his run for the White House, the McCain campaign has consistently been struggling with how to come up with a campaign narrative that works. First there was John McCain the advocate of victory in Iraq who put his country first, which was seen most starkly, and most effectively, in the ad that McCain put out shortly after clinching the Republican nomination. When it became clear over the summer that that strategy wasn’t working, the campaign began emphasizing McCain’s bipartisan record and willingness to take on his own party. Then, when Obama seemed to surge after his trip to Europe, they began characterizing him as a celebrity in an ad campaign that actually did some damage. That didn’t last long, though, because once the Palin picked was announced we were graced with the theme of a “Team of Mavericks.” Then, when the economy started tanking in September, McCain engaged in what can only be characterized as an incredibly unsuccessful political stunt. When that didn’t work, McCain started going negative, mostly by using Sarah Palin as the attack dog, but it became very clear very early that he was regretting that decision. Then, finally, he spent some time trying to characterize himself as a fighter, but then decided to become the champion of the plumbing industry.

The most interesting parts of the article, though, come during the discussion of the two events that I think will be seen as the turning points for the McCain campaign — the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and his response to the financial crisis.

On the Palin pick, what is most apparent is the fact that, as I suspected, the vetting process was almost non-existent:

On Sunday, Aug. 24, Schmidt and a few other senior advisers again convened for a general strategy meeting at the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton. McInturff, the pollster, brought somewhat-reassuring new numbers. The Celebrity motif had taken its toll on Obama. It was no longer third and nine, the pollster said — meaning, among other things, that McCain might well be advised to go with a safe pick as his running mate.

Then for a half-hour or so, the group reviewed names that had been bandied about in the past: Gov. Tim Pawlenty (of Minnesota) and Gov. Charlie Crist (of Florida); the former governors Tom Ridge (Pennsylvania) and Mitt Romney (Massachusetts); Senator Joe Lieberman (Connecticut); and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (New York). From a branding standpoint, they wondered, what message would each of these candidates send about John McCain? McInturff’s polling data suggested that none of these candidates brought significantly more to the ticket than any other.

“What about Sarah Palin?” Schmidt asked.

After a moment of silence, Fred Davis, McCain’s creative director (and not related to Rick), said, “I did the ads for her gubernatorial campaign.” But Davis had never once spoken with Palin, the governor of Alaska. Since the Republican Governors Association had paid for his work, Davis was prohibited by campaign laws from having any contact with the candidate. All Davis knew was that the R.G.A. folks had viewed Palin as a talent to keep an eye on. “She’d certainly be a maverick pick,” he concluded

After that first brief meeting, Davis remained in discreet but frequent contact with Palin and her staff — gathering tapes of speeches and interviews, as he was doing with all potential vice-presidential candidates. One tape in particular struck Davis as arresting: an interview with Palin and Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Arizona Democrat, on “The Charlie Rose Show” that was shown in October 2007. Reviewing the tape, it didn’t concern Davis that Palin seemed out of her depth on health-care issues or that, when asked to name her favorite candidate among the Republican field, she said, “I’m undecided.” What he liked was how she stuck to her pet issues — energy independence and ethics reform — and thereby refused to let Rose manage the interview. This was the case throughout all of the Palin footage. Consistency. Confidence. And . . . well, look at her. A friend had said to Davis: “The way you pick a vice president is, you get a frame of Time magazine, and you put the pictures of the people in that frame. You look at who fits that frame best — that’s your V. P.”

And that, it seems, was the end of that. Within five days, this unknown woman from Alaska, whom McCain had only met once prior to August 2008, was on a stage in Dayton, Ohio being introduced as John McCain’s choice for the person who would succeed him as President in the event of a crisis. And, later, basking in the glow of a largely successful Republican National Convention, you could see the beginning of the seeds of Palin’s own destruction:

The new narrative — the Team of Mavericks coming to lay waste the Beltway power alleys — now depended on a fairly inexperienced Alaska politician. The following night, after McCain’s speech brought the convention to a close, one of the campaign’s senior advisers stayed up late at the Hilton bar savoring the triumphant narrative arc. I asked him a rather basic question: “Leaving aside her actual experience, do you know how informed Governor Palin is about the issues of the day?”

The senior adviser thought for a moment. Then he looked up from his beer. “No,” he said quietly. “I don’t know.”

Well, thanks to Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, we learned that pretty quickly.

And then there was the financial bailout, and McCain’s pseudo-suspension:

After arriving on Capitol Hill nearly 24 hours after his announcement, McCain huddled with three of his closest political allies: fellow senators Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl. Later that day at a White House meeting convened by Bush and also attended by Congressional leaders of both parties as well as both candidates, McCain said almost nothing, even when House Republicans declared that they were not yet willing to sign onto the administration’s $700 billion proposal. Despite the fact that the deal maker had produced no deal, McCain announced the next day that his campaign would resume — “optimistic that there has been significant progress towards a bipartisan agreement,” as a campaign statement put it — and traveled to Mississippi that Friday afternoon to debate Obama. On Sunday morning, Schmidt went on “Meet the Press” to insist that his boss’s foray had been crucial in bringing “all of the parties to the table,” with the result that “there appears to be a framework completed.” The next day — Monday, Sept. 29, the day by which Schmidt had earlier warned the crisis “has to be solved” — the House Republicans played the key role in defeating the bailout legislation.

Scene by scene, McCain failed to deliver the performance that had been promised. Of course, this was no mere movie. America was in crisis. Perhaps with the Bush theory in mind, Steve Schmidt had advised McCain to “go in all the way” on the financial crisis so as to reveal his candidate’s true character. But given a chance to show what kind of president he might be, McCain came off more like a stymied bystander than a leader who could make a difference. Judging by the polls, the McCain campaign has yet to recover.

It may turn out to be the case that John McCain’s campaign died in mid-September when the markets crashed and, in the midst of what seemed at the time like a bid to demonstrate his ability to lead, he failed as the public watched. Or, maybe it’s simply that there’s almost nothing that McCain and the Republicans could have done to turn back the public’s negative feelings toward the GOP and the Bush Administration and the surge toward Obama.

Throughout all of it, though, what’s been most apparent is the phoniness of it all. Say what you will about him, but there was something genuine about the John McCain that ran for President in 2000. He went against Republican orthodoxy and didn’t much care for making friends among the evangelicals that were coalescing around George W. Bush. That’s not true this year. This year’s John McCain is as much a package as any other political candidate, and it’s a package the public isn’t buying.

Cross-posted at Below The Beltway