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With despair rising even among many of John McCain’s own advisers, influential Republicans inside and outside his campaign are engaged in an intense round of blame-casting and rear-covering — much of it virtually conceding that an Election Day rout is likely.
A McCain interview published Thursday in The Washington Times sparked the latest and most nasty round of finger-pointing, with senior GOP hands close to President Bush and top congressional aides denouncing the candidate for what they said was an unfocused message and poorly executed campaign.
McCain told the Times that the administration “let things get completely out of hand” through eight years of bad decisions about Iraq, global warming, and big spending.
The candidate’s strategists in recent days have become increasingly vocal in interviews and conference calls about what they call unfair news media coverage and Barack Obama’s wide financial advantage — both complaints laying down a post-election storyline for why their own efforts proved ineffectual.
These public comments offer a whiff of an increasingly acrid behind-the-scenes GOP meltdown — a blame game played out through not-for-attribution comments to reporters that operatives know will find their way into circulation.
Top Republican officials have let it be known they are distressed about McCain’s organization. Coordination between the McCain campaign and Republican National Committee, always uneven, is now nearly dysfunctional, with little high-level contact and intelligence-sharing between the two.
“There is no communication,” lamented one top Republican. “It drives you crazy.”
At his Northern Virginia headquarters, some McCain aides are already speaking of the campaign in the past tense. Morale, even among some of the heartiest and most loyal staffers, has plummeted. And many past and current McCain advisers are warring with each other over who led the candidate astray.
One well-connected Republican in the private sector was shocked to get calls and resumes in the past few days from what he said were senior McCain aides — a breach of custom for even the worst-off campaigns.
“It’s not an extraordinarily happy place to be right now,” said one senior McCain aide. “I’m not gonna lie. It’s just unfortunate.”
“If you really want to see what ‘going negative’ is in politics, just watch the back-stabbing and blame game that we’re starting to see,” said Mark McKinnon, the ad man who left the campaign after McCain wrapped up the GOP primary. “And there’s one common theme: Everyone who wasn’t part of the campaign could have done better.”
“The cake is baked,” agreed a former McCain strategist. “We’re entering the finger-pointing and positioning-for-history part of the campaign. It’s every man for himself now.”
A circular firing squad is among the most familiar political rituals of a campaign when things aren’t going well. But it is rare for campaign aides to be so openly participating in it well before Election Day.
One current senior campaign official gave voice to this “Law of the Jungle” ethic, defending the campaign against second-guessers who say it was a mistake to throw away his "experience" message in an attempt to match Obama’s “change” mantra.
“Everybody agreed with the strategy,” said this official. “We were unlikely to be successful without being aggressive and taking risks.”
Running as a steady hand and basing a campaign on Obama’s sparse résumé was a political loser, it was decided.
“The pollsters and the entire senior leadership of campaign believe that experience vs. change was not a winning message and formulation, the same way it was no winning formula with Hillary Clinton.”
Beyond the obvious reputation-burnishing — much of it by professional operatives whose financial livelihoods depend on ensuring that they are not blamed for a bad campaign — there is a more substantive dimension. Barring a big McCain comeback, and a turnabout in numerous congressional races where the party is in trouble, the GOP is on the brink of a soul-searching debate about what to do to reclaim power. Much of that debate will hinge on appraisals of what McCain could have done differently.
That is why his criticisms of Bush hit such an exposed nerve Thursday. Was McCain hobbled by party label at a time when the incumbent president is so unpopular? Or did his uneven response to the financial rescue — and endorsement of such nonconservative ideas as a massive government purchase of homeowner mortgages — seal his fate?
Dan Schnur, a McCain communications adviser during his 2000 run and now a political analyst at the University of Southern California, said McCain should step in to halt the defeatism and self-serving leaks — an epidemic of incontinence — on his own team.
“It’s a natural and human reaction when you’re struggling to make up ground, but that doesn’t make it right,” Schnur said. “As long as the campaign is still potentially winnable, these are an unnecessary distraction. This looks like it’s reached a point where the candidate has to step in himself and crack some heads to remind everyone why they came to work for him in the first place.”
Offered a chance to respond to the suggestion that the McCain campaign is awash in defeatism, a McCain official delivered a decidedly measured appraisal: “We have a real chance in Pennsylvania. We are in trouble in Colorado, Nevada and Virginia. We have lost Iowa and New Mexico. We are OK in Missouri, Ohio and Florida. Our voter intensity is good, and we can match their buy dollar for dollar starting today till the election. It’s a long shot, but it’s worth fighting for.”
Earlier this week, campaign manager Rick Davis complained to reporters in a conference call that reporters refuse to call out Obama for alleged shady fundraising tactics, but in the process revealed no small amount of envy over the Democratic financial advantage. "Now, I'd love to have that $4 million right now to put into Pennsylvania,” he said. “It'd be a good thing for our campaign. I think it's a game-changer if I can slap all of that right on the Philadelphia media market. It's an expensive place. And yet, Barack Obama gets away with raising illegitimate money and spending it.”
A New York Times Magazine piece on Sunday chronicling McCain’s campaign featured numerous not-for-attribution McCain staffers participating in what amounted to a campaign autopsy. One aide told writer Robert Draper, “For better or worse, our campaign has been fought from tactic to tactic,” and one criticized McCain’s debate performance.
Longtime McCain alter ego Mark Salter gave an interview to Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg criticizing everything from the news media to the vagaries of fate: “Iraq was supposed to be the issue of the campaign. We assumed it was our biggest challenge. Funny how things work.”
Many conservative commentators likewise have been writing of McCain’s campaign in a valedictory tone. Among this group there is an emerging debate — one with the potential to last for a long time about the role of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
One school — including syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker and Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal — called her a drag on the ticket and implicitly rebuked McCain’s judgment in picking her. Another school believes she is the future of the party, a view backed by Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard: “Whether they know it or not, Republicans have a huge stake in Palin. If, after the election, they let her slip into political obscurity, they’ll be making a huge mistake.”
In The Week, former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote of McCain’s travails in a way that seemed to take defeat for granted and warned the GOP faces a long road back. “That’s not a failure of campaign tactics. It’s not even a failure of strategy. It’s a failure of the Republican Party and conservative movement to adapt to the times.”
While Frum was focused on the long view of history, many Republicans in Washington are much more in the moment — and much harsher in their denunciation of McCain and his team.
A senior Republican strategist, speaking with authority about the view of the party’s establishment, issued a wide-ranging critique of the McCain high command: “Lashing out at past Republican Congresses, … echoing your opponent's attacks on you instead of attacking your opponent, and spending 150,000 hard dollars on designer clothes when congressional Republicans are struggling for money, and when your senior campaign staff are blaming each other for the loss in The New York Times [Magazine] 10 days before the election, you’re not doing much to energize your supporters.
“The fact is, when you’re the party standard-bearer, you have an obligation to fight to the finish,” this strategist continued. “I think they can still win. But if they don’t think that, they need to look at how Bob Dole finished out his campaign in 1996 and not try to take down as many Republicans with them as they can. Instead of campaigning in Electoral College states, Dole was campaigning in places he knew he didn’t have a chance to beat Clinton, but where he could energize key House and Senate races.”
A House Republican leadership aide in an e-mail was no more complimentary: “The staff has been remarkably undisciplined, too eager to point fingers, unable to craft any coherent long-term strategy. The handling of Palin (not her performances, but her rollout and availability) has been nothing short of political malpractice. I understand the candidate might have other opinions and might be dictating some aspects of the campaign to staff — but the lack of discipline and ability to draft and stick to a coherent message is unreal. You have half of the campaign saying Ayers is a major issue, and then the candidate out there saying he doesn’t care about a washed-up terrorist. You have McCain one day echoing Milton Friedman and the next day echoing FDR.”