10.05.08

When exactly did John McCain become Mad Max?

Recieved wisdom says its all Steve Schmidt’s fault. But sometimes there’s only so much damage a consultant can do.

There's a moment in Boogie Man, a new documentary about the life of Lee Atwater, when you realize that even a figure as dark and compelling as Atwater can be oversold. It comes when South Carolina political reporter Lee Bandy looks into the camera and claims that Atwater saved Ronald Reagan's candidacy. How a single campaign consultant supposedly did this doesn't matter. The point is, he didn't do it. Reagan saved his own candidacy, and won his own elections. Atwater may have helped. But the consultants' brilliance never proves decisive, despite what they tell reporters.

If John McCain wins next month, Steve Schmidt will become the most famous political consultant in America. Not only will he get credit (much of it deserved) for bringing discipline to McCain's stream of consciousness campaign style, but he looks the part. If you were casting the role of Diabolical Republican Operative, you'd pick Schmidt. Bald, burly and profane, he has worked for both Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. McCain calls him Sgt. Schmidt. It fits.

Plus, he's a good talker. One afternoon during this winter's primaries, I sat on McCain's plane listening as Schmidt critiqued the Romney campaign. Romney, Schmidt explained, was doing all sorts of things that were not only wrong, but dumb. Wait a second, I said. Why would Romney do that? Schmidt erupted. How the fuck should I know? Why did Jeffrey Dahmer eat people?

McCain has gone through a lot of different consultants. But he’s the same guy.

It's hard not to like a guy who talks like that. If McCain becomes president, someone is bound to make a new version of Boogie Man, this one starring Schmidt. You can imagine the treatment: McCain, once decent but now addled by ambition, decides he can win only by jettisoning his principles and hiring the most savage knife-fighter in politics, Rove protege Steve Schmidt, a man famous for stirring the racial fears of middle America, etc.

Actually, no one has yet accused Schmidt of racism (though needless to say that will change if McCain wins). But the real problem with this picture is that McCain himself hasn't changed. He's the same candidate he was before he hired Steve Schmidt, the same man who ran for president in 2000. Liberals hate to admit this. Many of them supported McCain eight years ago when he was trying to sink Bush, and they're appalled by him now that he's dared to run against the new Jesus. McCain has gone through a lot of different consultants in that time. But he's the same guy.

Consider the famous South Carolina primary campaign of 2000. McCain lost because the Bush people spread false rumors that he had an illegitimate black daughter, right? Nonsense. McCain lost because he scared the hell out of voters, seemingly on purpose. On election night, McCain appeared on stage in front of an enormous hand-painted banner that read, Burn It Down. I asked his then-campaign manager, John Weaver, about it later. He laughed maniacally. It's like Stokely Charmichael. Power to the people! He threw his fist into the air. Burn It Down - I love that.

Not surprisingly, most primary voters felt differently. They were confused and unsettled. The idea that South Carolina Republicans would respond enthusiastically to a message of radical anti-authoritarianism was — like McCain's support for the surge, or the temporary suspension of his campaign, or his choice of Sarah Palin — a major gamble. And he lost.

A new Obama ad out this week describes McCain as erratic in crisis. It's the new Democratic line of attack — after Bush clone apparently failed as too implausible — but it's not quite right. In fact, McCain's style is predictable. He's a fatalist. When pressed, he rolls the dice, goes for the grand flourish. (Andrew Cuomo for SEC chairman!) Every time. It's Barack Obama who chugs slowly forward like a middle-aged salaryman, cautious and halting. In this race, John McCain is the one for change.