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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

McCain Campaign Used To Being The Underdog

James Fallows: If you want an indication that the McCain camp has conceded.....

.... listen to this interview below, from today's NPR Morning Edition (audio available after 9am EDT). In it, Renee Montagne questions Steve Schmidt, famed tough-guy, gloves-off strategist for the McCain campaign. Anyone who has ever been near a troubled campaign -- or a sports team late in a losing game, or a business venture facing harsh reality -- will instantly recognize the signs of internalized defeat in Schmidt's comments:

Rationalization and excuses ("We were ahead until the financial crisis began"). More excuses ("We have the handicap of wearing the 'R' label this year" -- I mean, think about that for a moment, and imagine Karl Rove saying it). More and more excuses ("When someone says something inappropriate at our rallies, the media is all over it. When someone does it at an Obama rally...") A "we'll do our best" tone as opposed to confidence about being able to win. A rote quality to the pep talk about victory ("Senator Obama is known as a weak closer, and Senator McCain is a strong finisher!"). These quotes are approximate, a few minutes after hearing the spot, but true to the spirit. Given Schmidt's reputation as the heir to Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, that he was not able to keep on his game face is startling.

Anything can still happen. But to me this is the first sign of the McCain team itself recognizing how things stand now.

NPR 's Morning Edition, October 13, 2008 · There is a little more than three weeks to go before the presidential election. The latest polls show Republican John McCain is well behind Democrat Barack Obama. Steve Schmidt, Senator McCain's chief operating officer, tells Renee Montagne that the campaign will continue to talk about the differences with Obama, and that the media and pollsters shouldn't count McCain out.

An interesting Post form David Corn:

The McCain Campaign: Can You Fell The Hate?

The other day a Republican strategist shared an intriguing anecdote with me. Several years ago, he said, he was talking to Steve Schmidt, who now is the day-to-day manager of John McCain's campaign, and Schmidt said that he hated McCain to such an extent that he would vote for Hillary Clinton instead of McCain if such a choice ever presented itself. "He really said that?" I asked my source. "Beer was involved," this source replied.

These days, Schmidt, who was a senior operative for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, is responsible for getting McCain elected to the White House. No wonder there are problems in McCainland. I'm not suggesting that Schmidt is sabotaging the McCain campaign from the inside. He's a fierce political pro who cares mightily about getting another notch. He doesn't want to be burdened with a loss. But this tale underscores a fundamental reason for McCain's up-to-now failure. His campaign is being run by traditional Republican ops who are using the traditional Republican playbook which relies on the good ol' political tradition of hate-mongering. Which is not how McCain ran for the presidency in 2000.

Many of the folks in charge of the McCain campaign don't really care that much for him. Worse, they are treating McCain as a generic Republican candidate--smothering whatever once was special about him. And McCain has allowed this to happen. He has emasculated himself.

Look at those recent McCain rallies. His supporters are shouting "terrorist" when McCain mentions his opponent. And does McCain chastise them for doing so? No. In fact, he has been pushing the Obama-hangs-with-terrorists theme. Sarah Palin did so explicitly a few days ago by accusing Obama of "paling" around with terrorists--note the plural--a reference to Obama's past association with William Ayers, a former Weather Underground member who became a much-respected education expert. And on Thursday, McCain promised an angry supporter at a rally that he would bring up the Ayers link at the next debate. (Kudos to Joe Biden who, at a Thursday rally, slammed McCain for not having the guts to have done so to Obama's face at Tuesday nights' night. Nice touch: Biden took off his coat as he challenged McCain, noting that in Biden's old neighborhood if you had something to say about a guy, you said it straight to him. It looked as if Biden was preparing for a street brawl.)

So Schmidt (who once hated McCain) is stoking the coals of hate on behalf of McCain, who is not saying no to this. But wait there's more hate in the equation. For years, McCain hated parts of the Republican base. And the base hated him back. He decried Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He denounced the NRA, and it denounced him back. Many rightwing advocacy groups and leaders--including conservative strategist Grover Norquist--despised really despised) him for pushing through the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill, which imposed limits on independent political advertising.

Yet now all that hate is supposed to be gone. The NRA recently endorsed the man it once called "one of the premier flag carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment." Norquist backs McCain. Evangelical conservative groups are pushing for McCain. Much of this comes after years of McCain sucking up to the GOP base. And his selection of Palin sure helped with the social conservatives.

But it's hard to get over past hatred. And at the recent rallies, McCain supporters have been displaying disappointment that he has not been truly there for them--in that he has not pummeled Obama as the terrorist-hugging Socialist they know he really is. (And he's probably a Muslim, too!) They appear to be worried that even after all that pandering McCain is still not one of them.

So hard-cored GOPers suspect McCain is not fully representing their desires (or hatreds). The GOP establishment has never been a fan of his. Yet now McCain is depending on both. The fellow who once stood out among Republicans for his candor and willingness to buck party orthodoxy has surrendered his campaign to the Bush ops and is kowtowing to the base by promising to go nasty on Obama. That is, to become the vehicle of their hatred of Obama. Yesterday, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a co-chair of McCain's campaign, referred to Obama as a "guy of the street" who should "come clean" about his past drug use. (It's good news for Dems that the McCain camp believes he must play to the base at this late stage in the campaign. )

Can hate work in politics? Sure. Hope is not always a guaranteed winner. But McCain in 2000 was truly a happy warrior, as he challenged George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination. Now he is peddling ugly politics and doing so at a time when voters freaked out about the economic meltdown would probably prefer to see a steady and calm hand on the tiller, not the hand of a grumpy old guy bitching about events that happened years ago. I've been joking with friends in the past few weeks that the Dow might have to drop 2379 points for the United States to elect a black man president. But it turns out that this economic crisis is giving Obama a chance to act like a confident leader, and it's giving McCain the opportunity to display his erratic nature. And, if the polls can be believed, it seems that people who do fear what's happening in the world today are being more moved by Obama's hope than McCain's hate.

There still are over three weeks yet. And McCain, give him credit, did manage one of the great political comebacks in recent decades when he won the GOP nomination. But a majority of the electorate may have reached the point when they vote more out of fear for the future of this nation (and their own household) than out of stoked-up hatred for the other guy. If that's the case, McCain may soon look back on his campaign and hate himself for what he's done and what he has become.

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