Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Bush Takeover of the McCain Campaign

John McCain rearranged the deck chairs on his presidential campaign today. Evidently unhappy with a string of gaffes and poorly staged events, McCain handed over the keys to his campaign to Karl Rove acolyte Steve Schmidt and Schmidt responded first by giving a "Rudy" style inspirational speech to the McCain campaign staff.

Color me cynical, but I bet they were not overly impressed by that. Professional athletes are known to be unimpressed with inspirational talks. The same is probably the case with professional political operatives.

My guess is that the changes in McCain's campaign aren't going to accomplish much. Rick Davis, the guy that McCain removed from day to day control of the campaign was the last of the real "McCain guys." Rick Davis, John Weaver, and Mike Murphy were the guys who were with McCain from the first days of the "Straight-Talk Express" in 1999 and were instrumental in helping McCain shape his "maverick" image. These guys didn't get along with each other at all and weren't very good at organizing a national campaign, managing finances, or overseeing the daily battle over the news cycle. But they knew John McCain, were loyal to John McCain over everything, and their style was McCain's style.

Now that Davis has been kicked upstairs to "long-range planning," the McCain guys are out of the McCain campaign and the "Bush people" are in charge. Steve Schmidt earned his spurs as a communication aid for Bush-Cheney 2004 before moving on to Arnold Schwarzennegger's 2006 re-election bid. Other veterans of the Bush/Rove team include Nicolle Wallace, Greg Jenkins, Mike Duhaime, Taylor Griffin, and Matt McDonald.

The expectation is that the Bush/Rove people will be more disciplined and aggressive. Rove campaigns focus on driving the daily message, orchestrating smear campaigns, and micro-targeting potential supporters. But it's difficult to see this working with McCain's campaign. How is McCain going to settle on a single overarching theme when his positions are so consistently inconsistent? McCain wants to address climate change and override environmental protections, support campaign finance reform and violate campaign finance laws, clean up politics and rely on lobbyists to run his campaign, and represent a clear break from the Bush administration and support the war in Iraq, more corporate tax cuts, and torture. Boiling all those contradictions and more into an overriding theme will require more genius than the Rove people might be capable of.

Likewise, the Bush people now running McCain's campaign can be expected to get a lot tougher with Obama. That means launching smear campaigns like the Swift Boat ad of 2004. But swiftboating Obama is dangerous because he's African-American and Republicans are broadly seen as unethical and racist. Derogatory racial comments would damage McCain more than they would damage Obama. The same also seems to be the case for Willie Horton-style racial stereotyping. Karl Rove and the right-wing blogs have been experimenting with racial innuendo for months (here and here) but haven't hit on anything that would make Obama look bad without opening the Republicans up to accusations of racism. Plausible deniability is the name of the race-baiting game and nobody on the right has figured a way to cast aspersions on Obama as an African-American without being stigmatized themselves as racists.

It looks like 2008 is a tough year for smear artists.

There's also the candidate. Most of the dumb moves and gaffes coming out of the McCain campaign have been committed by John McCain himself. John McCain, not Rick Davis, has been referring to Putin as the President of Germany, mixing up the al-Qaeda and Iran, and committing similar blunders. Now McCain's in Columbia chasing the chimera of illustrating how Obama would be the first "protectionist president since Hoover." Talk about a waste of time and resources. The Bush people in McCain's campaign might be thinking that John McCain can become as disciplined and on-message as George Bush or Ronald Reagan. But efforts to discipline McCain might backfire and cause the candidate to be alienated from his own campaign.

In the final analysis, John McCain's main problem is "the man in the mirror." I doubt that the Bush people now running his campaign have a cure for that.

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