Steve Schmidt knows something about trying to steer a presidential campaign out of the ditch when much of the world is saying the wheels have come off.
In Schmidt’s case, helping to draft Sarah Palin to push John McCain over the finish line led to years of regret, as well as an unexpected measure of fame when he was sympathetically portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Game Change. So I thought Schmidt, having lost the 2008 contest to Barack Obama, would have a singular vantage point on the current Republican nominee’s mounting woes.
“When you’re inside a presidential campaign, it’s always important to keep perspective that the race is fundamentally a character test,” he tells me on a scratchy cell phone while driving through the mountains of Northern California. “Mitt Romney is being tested right now.”
If campaigns are “an MRI for the soul,” as Obama strategist David Axelrod says, Romney has the chance to show what he’s made of. Rarely in modern campaign history has a presidential nominee gone through such a disastrous stretch, a “very bad run,” as Schmidt puts it, that stretches back to “the moment of the empty chair” during Clint Eastwood’s convention routine. Given the furor over the surreptitiously recorded video in which Romney denigrated 47 percent of Americans as being freeloaders, he faces an uphill climb.
“These are like real things that actual presidents have to go through,” Schmidt says. “The American people expect presidents to keep going, to fight through it.
“The good news for the Romney campaign is that despite the unrelenting bad news and missteps and self-inflicted wounds, they are very much in the race. They are within striking distance.”
True enough, but easy to forget when even many conservative commentators are denouncing Romney for running an inept campaign, and his own unnamed aides are taking potshots at the way chief strategist Stuart Stevens is running things. That has a certain resonance for Schmidt.
“It’s unpleasant,” he recalls. “It’s important when people write you’re a genius that you not believe it. It’s important when people write you’re a dummy that you not believe it. Don’t get hung up on it. It’s like coaching in the NFL. When you’re down and behind, the fans are going to let you hear it…
“Stuart’s a smart guy. He’s won a lot of campaigns. This sort of thing isn’t helpful. It’s a distraction.”
Schmidt, who also worked for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection effort, makes no attempt to sugarcoat the fallout from Romney’s comments at the closed-door fundraiser in May. “The people he’s describing in the 47 percent that aren’t paying federal income tax, a great many of them are part of the Republican coalition,” he says. “What’s damaging about it is the sense that he’s out of touch with this whole section of the country. The way he describes them is not accurate.”
Schmidt has done public penance for supporting Palin as McCain’s running mate, saying she “helped usher in an era of know-nothingness and mainstreamed it in the Republican Party, to the detriment of the conservative movement.” He had “a very personally difficult relationship with her” and feels responsible for championing someone who was “fundamentally not qualified” to serve as vice president.
But he does not believe that Palin cost McCain the election. It was the financial crisis of mid-September, triggered by the collapse of Lehman Bros, he says.
“We went from a situation where we were ahead to a situation where we were behind the rest of the race. With an unpopular incumbent in office, that was it, it was over.”
But Romney’s outlook is less bleak, he says, because “all of these gaffes haven’t changed the fundamental dynamics of the race.” Reaching again for a football analogy, he says, “there’s going to be a moment in this campaign when you’re going to get the ball back. You’ve got to be ready to stay on offense.”
The call dropped as Schmidt weaved through the mountains. When we connected again, I asked whether Romney, who is hardly a natural campaigner, has the political talent to rescue his candidacy—and how Schmidt would handle the task.
“You have to build a campaign around the reality of who your candidate is. There’s no such thing as a group of consultants being able to reengineer someone’s personality.”