When John McCain’s 2008 campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, decided to throw the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, under the bus after losing the election to Barack Obama, I thought it was wrong.
Sure, the gamble on Palin ended up a bust, but Schmidt had picked her, and there is an implicit agreement of loyalty and discretion on a campaign. Just as smart legal defendants must level with their defense attorney, candidates must tell their campaign manager everything. This makes them vulnerable, which is why professionalism dictates keeping secrets the way a priest or an attorney might. (Okay, maybe you don’t take everything to the grave, but you wait a few decades before writing a memoir.)
Schmidt didn’t follow this old-fashioned ethos, blabbing all kinds of Palin campaign dirt to the media, and it led him down a path that made him wildly rich.
We may never know how much of the negative information that leaked to the press about Palin came from inside the house, but Schmidt landed on his feet after losing on the biggest stage by helping write the first draft of history.
As The New York Times noted in 2012, Schmidt’s reinvention was “helped in large part by the book and the movie Game Change, particularly the sympathetic portrayal of him in the film by Woody Harrelson.” Schmidt, the piece continued, “settled into a lucrative and prominent existence that suggests he is the beneficiary of the kind of political resurrection [he] might have orchestrated for a beleaguered public figure.”
Of course, Palin was expendable. Dishing on her could be excused. Besides, it was framed to preserve McCain’s status as a heroic P.O.W. and straight-talking reformer who always wanted to pick Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Schmidt could get away with betraying Palin, so long as he remained loyal to the man who famously corrected an older conservative voter who called Obama an “Arab.”
Now, 14 years after managing that losing race, and four years after McCain’s death (he was not invited to the funeral), Schmidt is back to stab the great war hero in the back (a level of disrespect not seen since Donald Trump said he “liked people who weren’t captured.”)
In recent days, Schmidt has alleged that McCain was involved in a long-time “relationship” with a female lobbyist (as was hinted at during the campaign), and says he was so disillusioned with McCain that he didn’t even vote for him—despite running his campaign.
What was the precipitating event that led Schmidt to unburden himself by making this revelation? I mean, why now?
The impetus seems to be revenge for Meghan McCain having liked a tweet alleging that Schmidt ran a “pedo racket.” Schmidt called attention to this on May 7, in the second tweet of an 11-part Twitter rant where he piled on a report about Meghan’s meager book sales. Just two days later, Schmidt’s attack on her father, John McCain, was published. If the attack on Sen. McCain was, in fact, aimed at hurting Meghan, it was a scummy move.
Chalk it up to just another example of Schmidt making dramatic shifts, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
In March 2016, Schmidt met with then-GOP frontrunner Trump at Trump Tower “to join his campaign.” According to the New York Post’s source, Trump “was very turned off by the fact that Schmidt had turned on McCain.” Schmidt later dismissed the meeting as merely “an opportunity for me to take his measure, see what he was about, see the reality of a man face-to-face.”
Incidentally, Schmidt’s most lucrative career move was his decision to co-found the scandal-plagued anti-Trump “conservative” group, the Lincoln Project, to earn “generational wealth.” He achieved that goal.
According to a Feb. 11, 2021, report from Associated Press, “Of the $90 million Lincoln Project has raised, more than $50 million has gone to firms controlled by the group’s leaders.” And “only about a third of the money, roughly $27 million, directly paid for advertisements that aired on broadcast and cable, or appeared online, during the 2020 campaign.”
The report went on to note that “Schmidt purchased a $1.4 million ‘Mountain Modern’ custom home in Kamas, Utah, with five bedrooms, seven baths and a ‘stunning’ view of the Uinta Mountains, according to property records and real estate listings. He is currently trying to resell the home for $2.9 million.”
Around that same time, Schmidt resigned from the Lincoln Project’s board, after it was reported that co-founder John Weaver had been sexually harassing young men. Schmidt claims he was previously unaware of the allegations against Weaver, but there is some dispute about that claim.
Still, before resigning, Schmidt was less than transparent.
“The Lincoln Project will be delighted to open its books for audit immediately after the Trump campaign and all affiliated super PACs do so,” he said. As Politico’s John Harris wrote, “A willingness to stoop to Trump’s level, in fact, was a basic premise of the Lincoln Project… The key difference, according to the Lincoln Project founders and much of their press coverage, was that they would be doing it on the side of the Good Guys.”
While Schmidt and the Lincoln Project lectured the nation about morals, ethics, and decency, their own house was obviously not in order. (Disclaimer: I have personally witnessed Schmidt’s penchant for imitating Trump, most famously when Schmidt compared yours truly and conservative writer Noah Rothman to “American Chamberlins” (sic) and “Vichy” France (a.k.a, Nazi collaborators.)
This is the guy who inflicted Sarah Palin on to the national body politic, admits to covering up what he claims are John McCain’s lies during a presidential election, and helped run a political activist group that was little more than a fundraiser for he and his self-congratulatory “conservative” cronies. And yet, he’s out there throwing stones.
Moreover, Schmidt recently tweeted that the Supreme Court had “completely broken trust and shattered its credibility” after learning of the leaked opinion on Roe, despite the fact that he was the guy who “ran the Roberts and Alito confirmations.” And yet, he is portrayed as some rock star by Woody Harrelson on HBO, is a fixture of political panel shows from Meet the Press to Real Time with Bill Maher, and is celebrated regularly by the liberal elite on networks like MSNBC.
You could also argue, generously, that he’s a political strategist who has no idea of what’s going on right under his nose.
Schmidt thought he identified a game-changing running mate, but she turned out to be Palin. He thought he was working for a maverick, but he was (according to Schmidt) really a rogue. He was completely blindsided that his business partner was sexual harassing young men, despite other people being well aware of that information.
He’s sort of like the DEA agent whose brother-in-law is Walter White in Breaking Bad—or Stan Beeman, the FBI agent living next door to Russian spies on The Americans. Completely oblivious.
Either Steve Schmidt wasn’t the brilliant and perceptive strategist he always claimed to be, or he was willing to look the other way on major indiscretions until it became inconvenient. And once that happened, he changed sides and cashed in. I’ll let you decide.