McCain Campaign Retrospective

by Rich Lowry

I wrote a piece for the new issue on the McCain campaign, focusing especially on the endgame and the fight over Palin. I know a lot of people are already sick of this stuff, but I wanted to talk to people in the campaign to satisfy my curiosity as much as anything else.


The split over Palin, of course, poisoned everything at the end. One of the dividing lines was between her communications team and the policy advisers. The communications team seemed to consider her a dolt, while the policy people—like Steve Biegun and Randy Scheunemann–were impressed with her and her potential. As one McCain aide told me, “It’s the difference between considering her someone who lacks knowledge and someone who is incompetent, and they [the communications aides] treated her as the latter.”


By many accounts, the relationship between Palin and the staff assigned by the campaign to travel with her on her plane was dysfunctional and even hostile from the beginning. “She would have been better served if she had asked a couple of people to be removed from her traveling staff,” says one McCain aide.


Some McCain loyalists think the Bushies assigned to Palin let her down and then turned on her. This is a representative quote from someone from McCain world holding that view: “Look, she wasn’t ready for this, obviously. Their job was to make her ready for this and they failed. So they unloaded on her. If they had an iota of loyalty to John McCain, they wouldn’t have done it.” 


The whole thing is sad, and murky. The phrases you hear over and over are “that’s a lie,” or “that’s bull—-.” People also often say of the finale of the campaign, “I was just trying to keep my head down.”


Anyway, more in the issue. Meanwhile, here is some material from my interview with campaign manager Rick Davis:

On McCain allegedly being upset by the “negativity” of his own campaign: “It was his campaign. Nothing ever happened that he didn’t want to happen.”

On the campaign supposedly being run by committee, which is what many McCain aides complain about in retrospect: “80 percent of it was Steve and I in consultation from the convention on.”

On the “Time” magazine interview where McCain was non-responsive, leading journalists to conclude he was unhappy with his own campaign: “He didn’t want to do that interview, he thought they were being jerks.”

On the Paulson plan initially going down in the House, after McCain had returned to Washington: “It was a bit crippling.”

On putting Palin out in big, hostile network interviews at the beginning: “Our assumption was people would not let us release her on Fox or local TV.”

On the Couric interview, which Davis says Palin thought would be softer because she was being interviewed by a woman: “She was under the impression the Couric thing was going to be easier than it was. Everyone’s guard was down for the Couric interview.”

On the clothes fiasco: “We flew her out from Alaska to Arizona to Ohio to introduce her to the world and take control of her life. She didn’t think ‘dress for the convention’, because it might have just been a nice day trip to Arizona if she didn’t click with John. Very little prep had been done and if it had, we might have gotten picked off by the press. We were under incredible scrutiny. We got her a gal from New York and we thought, ‘Let’s get some clothes for her and the family.’ It was a failure of management not to get better control and track of that. The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, what it was worth or where it was going. No one knew how much that stuff was worth. It was more our responsibility than hers.”

On the zaniness surrounding Randy Scheunemann. For those not following it, Steve Schmidt has told people he was fired the last week of the campaign; Scheunemann says he wasn’t fired; others say Schmidt tried to fire him (at one point cutting off his e-mail) but was over-ruled by Davis. (Scheunemann’s offense was writing an email to Bill Kristol defending Palin and criticizing the handling of her.): “Schmidt never fired anybody and there was no overruling. Steve Schmidt never spoke to Randy in that period of time. Randy Scheunemann was not fired. His e-mail was cut off and put back on.”


On who was behind the leaks against Palin after the campaign: “Honestly, I have no idea. It’s the most juvenile thing I’ve ever seen. It’s inappropriate, uncalled for, and made me sad for our campaign.”

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