After re-reading Robert Draper’s in-depth narrative of the behind-the-scenes drama of the McCain campaign, the biggest thing I took away from it was how Steve Schmidt was at or near the center of nearly every major tactical and strategic decision of the campaign – good or bad – during the last few months.
The biggest example of this, and arguably McCain’s biggest blunder, was Schmidt’s idea for McCain to suspend his campaign and go back to Washington to work on the negotiations for the bailout package. Mark Salter and Rick Davis are in there as part of the senior decision-making team too, but largely in supporting roles. Schmidt is the main character in the story. But between the three of them, my general assessment is that John McCain was the victim of political malpractice. He got bad advice repeatedly and his campaign suffered for it, and continues to do so.
There are moments of surprising candor in Draper’s exchanges with his sources, naturally on a not-for-attribution basis for the most part. The best reporting comes from Draper’s meticulous reconstruction of the cloak and dagger operation involved in getting Sarah Palin from Alaska to Arizona and then Ohio while keeping it under wraps from the press and most of the campaign staff. The other surprising thing about the Palin pick was just how in the dark many McCain aides were until the last minute. Draper does not talk much about the vetting process, but based on how he described the interviews with Palin, it seems that it was very much a last-minute decision hastily put together.
But the biggest contribution of Draper’s story is that it offers an accurate assessment of the McCain campaign’s central problem, especially in comparison to the Obama campaign: the inability to find and stick to a single theme or message to sell voters on their candidate. As circumstances changed, so did the McCain campaign’s message – 6 times by Draper’s count. It is essentially a post-mortem on a campaign that is still alive. Yes it’s premature to speak of the McCain campaign in the past tense when theoretically they could still win on Election Day, but as a quasi-contemporary picture of the campaign, I think its analysis and reporting is accurate.
This is probably a good sneak preview of the inevitable McCain campaign insider tell all books that will be published after the election.