11.10.08

The McCain I Know

The environment the GOP candidate ran in made a very difficult task close to impossible.

The environment the GOP candidate ran in, which grew worse the closer he got to Election Day, made a very difficult task close to impossible.

In July last year, I boarded a flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., to Manchester, N.H., in the company of Senator John McCain and his son, Marine Corps Private James McCain, who was scheduled to deploy to Iraq a couple weeks later. Raised in a military family, the senator was familiar with the experience of bidding good-bye to loved ones as they left for war. But Jimmy was the first of his seven children to do so, and although few observers would detect the worry for his son’s safety that burdened him or even recognize the tough but slightly built teenager accompanying him that weekend, he could think of little else.

I often had the feeling that reporters were motivated by a well-intentioned desire to help America prove that we had overcome racial bigotry.

That hardly made him unique. Many thousands of American parents with sons and daughters serving in combat zones have experienced the same anxiety the McCains felt. But John McCain knew he bore a personal responsibility for endangering his son’s life. He had supported going to war in Iraq, and when the mismanagement of the war had brought it to the precipice of calamitous failure, he had been a leading voice advocating the counter-insurgency proposed by the new American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the surge of US forces required to execute it, which now included his youngest son. Most distressing to him was the fear his position as a candidate for president would bring unwanted publicity to Jimmy’s presence in Iraq, and attract the special interest of our enemies there.

He traveled to New Hampshire that evening to keep an appointment the following day to argue again that the “surge” offered his country one last chance to rescue Iraq and America’s security interests from the dire consequences of losing a war in the heart of the Middle East to Baathist insurgents, foreign terrorists, and Shia militia.

Most reporters attending the speech were as little interested in his argument as were, I suspect, many members of the Concord, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, who hosted him that day. Many reporters there, including some of the most senior political reporters in Washington, had come for another purpose: to see if John McCain would put a formal end to his once front-running campaign that had just that week earned widespread ridicule when it collapsed in bankruptcy, animosity from party rank and file for his support of comprehensive immigration reform, staff departures, and recriminations from various camps of warring supporters.

But the object of their diminished interest and ridicule is a man who possesses such mental and physical toughness that, after 20 years of closely observing him, I am as impressed by his fortitude today as I was the first time I encountered it. Soldiering on through any adversity is not a brave choice for him. It is not a choice at all. It is an imperative.

So he went to New Hampshire to resume on his terms a campaign that all Washington, always eager to achieve a consensus narrative for political misfortune, believed doomed. The day after his Concord speech, he held a town hall meeting in Claremont, N.H., one of more than a hundred he would hold over the next six months. The candidate, his reduced staff, and the few reporters still assigned to our campaign rode around the state in rented vans until we could raise the money to hire a bus.

He put his campaign on his back, and by late November he had become a viable candidate again. Although still an underdog and always short of funding, his crowds in New Hampshire were growing bigger and more enthusiastic. More reporters were showing up to cover him, attracted by the open access he gave them. His experienced and hardworking New Hampshire staff performed beyond all reasonable expectations, animated by their loyalty and affection for the man who depended on them. The national staff, which included both old McCain hands and veterans of the Bush campaign, fought together like soldiers in a foxhole, every one of us inspired by the patriotism, courage, and resilience of the candidate we served.

John McCain’s victory in the New Hampshire primary last January led, although not inevitably, to securing his party’s nomination two months later and the opportunity to square off against the richest and largest presidential campaign ever assembled. Our gifted opponent, and his talented and exceptionally disciplined staff, were enough of a challenge to contend with. But the environment we ran in, which grew worse the closer we got to Election Day, made a very difficult task close to impossible. Americans, tired of war and deeply anxious over a bad economy, were ready for change. The incumbent president‘s unpopularity, a historically high wrong track number, and the Republican Party’s squandered reputation for competent governance and fiscal discipline made Americans readily receptive to our eloquent opponent‘s message of change, and helped overcome their doubts about his inexperience and liberal record.

It seemed to us there were more investigative stories about our candidate’s spouse than about Senator Obama.

By the end of the campaign, our own polling revealed over 60 percent of voters recognized Senator Obama as a political liberal, while only a little over 20 percent of voters identified themselves that way. It didn’t matter. Americans wanted change, and a majority of them were willing to gamble on the young man with a short resume, whose positions on issues were often at odds with theirs, because he offered the most change. Any Republican, even one with a reputation for political courage and a record of challenging his party’s leadership, would have a hard time satisfying the public’s desire for sweeping change. The R after his name indicted him in the public mind, and Senator Obama’s campaign, with millions of dollars in advertising and an intense focus on its message, expertly prosecuted the case: McCain equals four more years of Bush.

The senator’s selection of Governor Palin, like almost every major decision in the campaign, was viewed as a cynical and self-interested choice intended to excite social conservatives, who hadn’t shown much enthusiasm for the top of the ticket. Surely, no one would have advised our candidate to choose a running mate who would have lengthened the odds against us. But overlooked in the brisk dismissal that Governor Palin might have qualities other than her social conservative credentials and obvious retail political skills was her actual appeal to John McCain. It also fails to credit his advisers’ conviction that, given the environment we were running in, a message of experience over the untested new guy would not succeed even if we executed perfectly. Arguing that John McCain actually had a record of risking his career to reform the institutions and practices of politics and our opponent didn’t had gotten us nowhere. To reporters and many voters, Senator Obama was change personified and John McCain was yesterday‘s news.

Every candidate for office who takes on an incumbent runs on a message of change and reform. Few live up to their promise. Sarah Palin ran against the political establishment in Alaska with the promise to clean up the self-dealing and corruption that had finally worn out the patience of Alaskan voters. She defeated an incumbent Republican governor and a popular former Democratic one, an impressive accomplishment in itself. But she didn’t just run as a reformer. She governed as one. That was the source of her appeal to John McCain. He holds in high esteem anyone of either party who keeps their campaign commitments to reform. He greatly admired Senator Russ Feingold and the late Senator Paul Wellstone for that reason, despite their liberal credentials and views on most issues. He chose Sarah Palin to underscore his commitment to reform and help him keep his promise once in office. He recognized she had little experience in foreign affairs, but so did his opponent. She was well-versed in the area of energy security, which would have been a priority of a McCain administration. She is hardworking, intelligent, and a quick study, and he believed she would learn by study and experience all she would be required to know as next in line to the presidency.

No doubt, we made our share of mistakes. In hindsight, the decision to briefly suspend our campaign to help find support for legislation to address the collapse of the global credit system is probably one of them. But the criticism that it was nothing but a stunt that failed is mistaken. The morning of the announcement, senior economic advisers to the campaign impressed on the candidate that failure to pass some rescue package would lead to a disaster of monumental proportions. We were also aware that support for the legislation among House Republicans was virtually nonexistent.

He and his senior staff believed he had three options. The most politically appealing was to remain quiet, and then weigh in against the legislation as it was put to a vote, which would have put him on the side of about 70 percent of voters. The second was to offer a vague appeal for improvements to the bill and then keep his distance, mindful that it would probably fail because of House Republican opposition. The third was to become personally involved in finding a compromise that could pass with Republican support and try to convince Senator Obama to join us. He chose the third course, and all his senior staff agreed with him. And while it turned out to be politically costly, I don’t think it was anything less than the responsible decision. Nor do I think it proved to be a fatal injury to his campaign. The financial crisis he was responding to had already very likely made the steep hill he was climbing insurmountable.

The people who worked loyally and as hard as they could to help elect him, whether they had been with John McCain for years or had worked on President Bush’s campaign, were all proud to do so because they respected the reputation he had risked so much to achieve, and took it as their personal responsibility to protect it. Rick Davis kept the campaign together long after most people had given up on it, and Steve Schmidt brought a new vitality and focus to it. They worked well and creatively together. Steve encouraged the candidate to campaign in places Republicans seldom visited and remained as vigilant about protecting the “McCain brand” as anyone. Rick Davis managed the typical disagreements that occur within campaigns so tactfully that they seldom became a serious cause for dissension. The senior staff made most decisions by consensus, after all arguments were fully debated. Our successes and our mistakes were a shared responsibility.

Everyone, of old or recent McCain vintage, labored honorably to prevail in an election we could have lost by a much wider margin, and had even managed for a brief time to build a small lead before the turmoil in global financial markets turned a desire for change into a burning passion for it. I’m proud of every single one of them.

He wasn’t kidnapped by Bush operatives and brainwashed into becoming a conventional slash and burn candidate.

I think I know the real John McCain as well as anybody does. And though I’m sure my claim will provoke comments that I’m still busy creating a McCain myth that only looked authentic once, the real John McCain showed up every day of this campaign. He was there in the primaries defending his positions on immigration reform and the treatment of enemy prisoners of war and climate change. He was there in the general election standing outside the gates of a shuttered steel mill in Youngstown arguing the benefits of free trade. He was there in the black belt of Alabama and New Orleans' Ninth Ward promising to be a president who cared about every American community. He was there civilly defending his position on the Iraq war in front of protesters at town halls, and inviting their follow-up questions. He was there when he sincerely offered to campaign across the country with his opponent in civil exchanges at town hall meetings before undecided voters. He was there when he forbade his campaign to raise Reverend Jeremiah Wright as an issue. He was there in the last weeks of the election, campaigning as hard as he ever had for an outcome he knew was unlikely.

And he was there on a stage in Phoenix on the evening of November 4, with his Marine son safely home from war standing near him, relieved by the welcome report there were fewer Americans killed in Iraq in October than any month since the war began, holding his head up high and bowing to the history so many hoped would be made that night, and thanking God for the privilege of serving his country. Those with eyes to see that John McCain will understand me when I write, I am prouder of him today than I have ever been.

Mark Salter has worked for John McCain for 20 years.