McCain Campaign Autopsy

Chief strategist Steve Schmidt talks about the moment—back in September—when he knew McCain was doomed. Plus, his surprising view on gay marriage, and more scoop on leaks.

Reached on a long-planned vacation outside the country, former McCain campaign chief strategist Steve Schmidt was in the middle of letting go. Still determined to convince observers that McCain’s campaign had nothing to be ashamed of—in its tone or in the eventual outcome—Schmidt echoed some familiar talking points: noting, for instance, that “running with an ‘R’ next to your name, in this year, was probably lethal.” He was also quick to argue, “We kept fighting. John McCain never quit.” However, with even just a few days' distance, he saw no problem in confirming what, from the outside, seemed like an obvious frustration: Constant leaks, and not just about Sarah Palin. There were, he said, “more than eight or nine people who would” talk to reporters. “We would read about [it] pretty quickly in Politico or one of the other blogs, with exact details and recounting of the discussions” that campaign leaders were having. “And it’s very difficult to run a political campaign at any level where that environment exists. And it was the first time in my career that I have ever worked in that environment.”

Looking forward, Schmidt sees the need for a wholesale reinvention of the party: “The party in the Northeast is all but extinct; the party on the West Coast is all but extinct...there has to be a message and a vision that is compelling to people in order for them to come back and to give consideration to the Republican Party again.”

“There has to be a message and a vision that is compelling to people in order for them to come back and to give consideration to the Republican Party again.”

Toward the end of this election cycle, it seemed to many that Schmidt and the McCain campaign were reverting to themes that seemed almost antique: red-baiting taunts of “socialism,” as well as appeals to the “real America.” But today, Schmidt rejected those tactics as blueprints for the future: “The Republican Party wants to, needs to, be able to represent, you know, not only conservatives, but centrists as well. And the party that controls the center is the party that controls the American electorate.” As to what form Republican centrism might take, Schmidt’s response to an email follow-up question suggests it will be anything but the kind of base-friendly social conservatism of Palin.

From: Ana Marie Cox To: Steve Schmidt Sent: Fri Nov 07 08:50:28 2008 Subject: Re: Calling you in 30

the passing of prop 8... any comment?

From: Steve Schmidt To: Ana Marie Cox Received: Fri, Nov 7, 2008 at 7:03 AM Subject: Re: Calling you in 30

I was disappointed with the result

When did you know it was over?

The moment that I will look back at as the moment deep in my gut that I knew, was September 29, when I was flying on a plane with Governor Palin to Sedona for debate prep, watching the split screen on the TVs, because she had a JetBlue charter, and it showed the stock market down seven, eight hundred points; it showed the Congress voting down the bailout package on the other side, and then, House Republicans went out and told the world that the reason that they voted against this legislation, allowed the stock market to crash, allowed the economy to be so injured, was because Nancy Pelosi had given a mean and partisan speech on the floor. And this was their response. And I just viewed it as beyond devastating, and thought that at that moment running with an “R” next to your name, in this year, was probably lethal. But we kept fighting. John McCain never quit…And, you know, for, for my part I had expected that election night, that it would be a pretty early night.

What can the Republican Party learn from what happened this cycle?

There are many lessons for the Republican Party out [of] this election, and the party having been roundly defeated is going to go through a period of debate, and finger-pointing, and recrimination, and blame-gaming, as it seeks to rebuild and become competitive again on the national stage.

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If you look at the returns from the southwestern and mountain west states, with rising Latino populations, it’s clear that Latinos are repudiating the party, their anger about the tone of the immigration debate, and the party has to figure out a way to communicate that wanting to have a secure and sovereign southern border and respect for Latinos are not mutually exclusive. But if the party does not figure out a way to appeal to Latino voters, it will become increasingly difficult, and maybe impossible, to ever again win a national election.

The party in the Northeast is all but extinct; the party on the West Coast is all but extinct; the party has lost the mid-South states—Virginia, North Carolina—and the party is in deep trouble in the Rocky Mountain West, and there has to be a message and a vision that is compelling to people in order for them to come back and to give consideration to the Republican Party again.

The Republican Party was long known as the party that competently managed government. We’ve lost our claim to that. The Republican Party was known as the party that was serious on national security issues. The mismanagement of the war has stripped that away. So there is much to do in rebuilding the brand of the party, what it stands for, and what it’s about in a way that Americans find appealing. The country has just elected a—the country has just vested power—in a Democratic Party, across the board. And you will see a sharp left turn. The Republican Party wants to, needs to, be able to represent, you know, not only conservatives, but centrists as well. And the party that controls the center is the party that controls the American electorate.

Do you think that the McCain campaign offered that sort of new version of the GOP? Because, quite frankly, I think that in some ways the McCain campaign was much more of a classic, GOP classic, let’s say, rather than new GOP 2.0. Did we see the last GOP campaign of the 21st century, as it were? I mean, I think that the next successful GOP campaign is not going to look like what just happened. I mean, it can’t, right?

Well, I would say this. When you look at the campaign, one of the results of this campaign is the reality that public financing is dead. And the Obama campaign changed the scale of American politics by their fundraising operation, and their use of technology. Each party develops techniques, usually when they’re out of power, for the purpose of gaining power on the next election—need being the mother of all inventions. You saw Republicans pioneer direct mail in an earlier age. You saw, you know, the use of television advertising pioneered in an earlier age. You saw microtargeting—you know, the overlaying of consumer and consumer data against the voter file, earlier in the decade, to much effect. There’s been a profound leap forward in technology and from a community organizing perspective by the Obama campaign in this election. The Democratic Party is a generation ahead technologically. And the Republican Party is going to have to be competitive to catch up in a world where viral information is just as important as what might be in the network news.

What are some of those successful moments for you? The moments you thought, “This is going to work”?

I will always be proud to have worked for John McCain in this cause. I think he is a great American. I think he would have made a great president. But the American people are sovereign in this country, and they have another idea. So, like everybody on Senator McCain’s campaign, we send our best wishes to President-elect Obama, and we wish him success because his success is all of our success, as Americans. And he’s all of [our] president, come January 20.

This was a campaign that was dealt a very, very tough deck of cards. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be another campaign in our lifetimes that somebody will have to run in a worse environment than the environment that John McCain had to run in. And I’m very proud of the fact that when Senator Obama came to opening up the lead and running away with this race, in August, when he returned from his trip to Europe, that we were able to halt his momentum, and to figure out a way to get ahead in the race by the middle of September, which is something that nobody thought was possible for us to do. We needed to, at a strategic level, at our convention, excite the base, appeal to the middle, distance ourselves from the policies of the administration, and to, um, recapture the reform and maverick credential that had been whittled away. And, that strategy was succeeding, and it worked until there was an economic collapse, and I’m proud of the fact that John McCain got up and fought every day, in very trying circumstances.

Right, obviously, something that worked, that seemed to be working really well in regards to stopping his momentum was the Sarah Palin pick. But what’s amazing now is the amount of discussion about what a bad pick that was. And much is being made of the fact that these criticisms seem to be coming from inside the McCain campaign.

One of the things that was very frustrating about the campaign, and Rick Davis and I would talk about a great deal, was the level of leaking out of the campaign.

You know, [there were] more than eight or nine people who would [leak] and we would read about pretty quickly in Politico or one of the other blogs, with exact details and recounting of the discussion. And it’s very difficult to run a political campaign at any level where that environment exists. And it was the first time in my career that I have ever worked in that environment. It was a big issue in the campaign and a constant source of frustration to the leadership of the campaign.

And it just continues to happen?

It is a, you know…it is a…you know, it is…it’s a sad thing to see.

What do you think about the chances that McCain could play a big part in the party’s future, if not a leader, then as still someone who is dedicated to solving problems? How can he move forward when his campaign is making it look like, when a lot of people formerly on the campaign seem to be acting like children?

All of this will eventually pass, but, you know, that doesn’t--you know, the fact that all of this will eventually pass doesn’t make it right or less ugly, but it will pass. John McCain will be a leader of the party.

What role do you think Sarah Palin is going to play?

He will play a role [as a party leader], as will Sarah Palin. Throughout the campaign she was unfairly attacked. She handled it with grace and toughness. She inspired many people across the country, as evidenced by the enormous crowds she attracted at her events. And she’s an important new voice in the Republican Party.

But when you were talking about moving forward, the new, GOP 2.0, or whatever it is we’re going to be seeing in the future, it doesn’t seem like she’s especially reflective of any kind of new thinking about policy, or that she could be someone who could potentially appeal to Latino voters, and people who are not social conservatives. While an incredibly exciting presence, as a person, she doesn’t seem to represent any kind of new approach to conservatism or to the Republican Party.

Umm, I think, I disagree with that because she now returns to Alaska as governor, not as a vice presidential candidate, with her own standing in the party, not in the shadow of the nominee. So her ability to lead a broad coalition that can create an electoral majority in the party has not been tested. So it should not be pre-judged.

If she had aspirations for higher office in 2012, and beyond, she will have to be able to demonstrate that she is able to be an appealing figure outside the base, outside the base of the Republican Party. And certainly she has a track record of being able to do that in Alaska, where there are Democrats in her Cabinet, where even today she has broad support across the, you know, political spectrum.

And the reality of these campaigns at the presidential level is that it is easy to turn candidates into caricatures but when you step beyond the political season and you evaluate her for how she has governed her state, she has governed the state in the middle. And should she decide to run for national office, you know, nobody should judge her ability to assemble a broad coalition that is capable of winning majority support in the country.

But she'll have to show she's competent at a national level—which she didn't really show. When you look at the numbers, it seems that the vast majority of voters weren’t critical of her over trivial things—clothes, for instance—but rather they were deeply concerned that she wasn’t ready to be president.

Looking into the future, every candidate for president, in order to win their party’s nomination and ultimately to win the presidency itself, has to demonstrate to the party and then to the American people that they’re ready to be president. If she were to run for president, she will have to cross that bar.

Can I also add to the thought about where we’ll get the ideas of the party? There is a new generation—there are leaders that have emerged from this campaign that are worth paying attention to. Governor Romney did a fantastic job in this campaign and is certainly an important voice on the national stage. Newt Gingrich is someone that the party in my view must pay very close attention to because he is an idea champion for the future and has many great ideas about how to define 21st-century conservatism and how to define the Republican Party and to establish an intellectual base on which a political movement can be rebuilt.

I know that you've thought about the relationship between the GOP and black voters and I'm very curious about the degree to which the campaign that just happened might have damaged that relationship and what can be done to rebuild it, or can it be rebuilt?

Routinely African-American voters have cast over 90 percent of their vote for Dem candidates in presidential elections, and the Republican Party needs to make it a generation's work to reach out into the black community and to connect on issues that African-Americans care about and to build up its credibility.

There's no question that in this election because an African-American was on the ballot there was tremendous pride in that community for his incredible accomplishment, just like there was tremendous pride in the Irish Catholic community when John Kennedy ran for president in 1960. The unique circumstances of this election with an African-American on the ballot—I don't think represent a setback for Republicans.

It was obviously an important and giant leap forward for African-Americans. It’s something that every person in this country should be very proud of because from Election Day forward no young African-American kid will ever have to go to school thinking they can’t grow up to be president of the United States. That’s an important thing and that’s a good thing. But the party, its challenge remains.

Had Hillary Clinton been on the ballot she still would have received over 90 percent of the African-American vote. And if you look at Governor Schwarzenegger in California, who's an excellent model for this, he got like 30 percent of the black vote. This isn’t about outreach election cycle to election cycle; this has to be a generation-long commitment by the party to that community to become competitive.

What was the most memorable moment of the campaign for you?

The most memorable moment for me in the campaign was being in a hotel bedroom with John McCain and four other people when he secured the nomination of his party. What people forget sometimes in American politics, and I always thought about this when people attached the word loser to John Kerry--he was the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States. It’s a singular accomplishment in life to be your party’s standard bearer, and it was a moment that John McCain had worked very hard for and it was a moment that came after the collapse of his campaign, after he had taken to flying on Southwest in the middle seat carrying his own luggage, and it was a huge accomplishment for him and it was something I was very honored to be able to share with him.

And when did you say goodbye to McCain?

After his concession speech I walked him to his car. Said goodbye to Cindy, he gave me a hug, and he said, "We fought the good fight, we did all we could do."

Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days. Ana Marie Cox has worked for Time, Mother Jones, Suck, and most recently, Radar. Follow her on Twitter.