In Defense of McCain's Campaign

Steve Schmidt and his colleagues took John McCain further than he had any reasonable right to, given the political climate.

The most popular parlor game in Washington, D.C., these days is the bludgeoning of the McCain campaign. It started with Bill Kristol’s column in The New York Times recently in which he wrote, “It’s time to fire the campaign. What McCain needs to do is junk the whole thing and start over.”

Right. That would have worked out well, I’m sure.

One of the physical laws of politics is that if your campaign wins, you’re a genius. If you lose, you’re an idiot.

I know and have worked with Obama’s lead adviser David Axelrod, and he’s as smart as anyone I’ve worked with in politics and deserves a lot of credit for a well-run campaign. But I know he’d be the first to admit that he just had the good judgment to saddle up on Secretariat.

I also know and have worked with McCain’s guru Steve Schmidt, who is also one of the most talented players in the game. He just saddled up on Seabiscuit. But he’s running against Secretariat. And only one great horse gets to win.

I don’t defend everything the campaign has done. But I also don’t think they had many options, and they tried them all.

Nevertheless, while voters have yet to decide this election, the bloody harpooning of the McCain campaign has begun: “Why didn’t they let McCain be McCain?” “The campaign was all tactics and no strategy.” “The Palin pick was a disaster.” “The message was unfocused and campaign poorly executed.” “Why haven’t they produced ads attacking Jeremiah Wright?” “The campaign isn’t positive enough.” “The campaign isn’t negative enough.”

Of course almost all the shots come from consultants and hacks who didn’t get hired, or were fired by the McCain campaign. Or were part of some past presidential campaign in which they still revel in the glory and clink toasts to one another as if they cured the measles. Many of these people, who profess to “love McCain,” are firing blistering shots at the campaign through the press, which serves only one purpose. And it ain’t to help McCain.

There is a fundamental question we always ask in political polls. Is the country headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track? Whenever the wrong track number is over 50 it spells trouble for the incumbent party. The most recently recorded number is the worst in the history of polling. Only nine percent of respondents think the country is headed in the right direction. I know what you’re thinking. “Who are those nine percent?”

So, by this measure, John McCain should be polling at about nine percent. And yet, Schmidt and company ran a good enough campaign that McCain went into the Republican Convention tied. And came out of it ahead. The only real surprise in this race is that it was ever close.

I don’t defend everything the campaign has done. But I also don’t think they had many options, and they tried them all. I left the campaign after serving as McCain’s media adviser during the primary. I left because I respect and admire Barack Obama, though I disagree with him politically. I just didn’t want to be part of a campaign that would inevitably have to attack Obama and tear him down. But it doesn’t mean that I disagree with the fundamental strategic premise that in order to win, McCain had to disqualify Obama. I knew that, and I knew that’s where the campaign would have to go. And I so I sat it out.

I could join the ugly chorus and point out some of my disagreements about the campaign. There are a few things I might have done differently, but I don’t think any would have made any significant difference. But I know what it’s like to be on the inside of an effort that may not make it. And I know what it’s like when you join the ranks of the idiots just because you come up short. Most of all, I know that Steve Schmidt and his colleagues have run a very good campaign and have taken McCain further than he had any reasonable right to, given the political climate. And by the way, don’t tell the press, but the election ain’t over yet. The old fighter pilot may have a couple barrel rolls left in him.

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If not for a major economic event that interceded a few weeks ago (for which a strong majority of voters blame Republicans), this race might still be competitive. It isn’t Steve Schmidt’s fault. It’s the economy, stupid.

McKinnon is the vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media. He has advised George W. Bush, John McCain, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.