It wasn’t so long ago that Terry Nelson and John Weaver, the two newly departed leaders of the McCain for President campaign, were widely considered to be political geniuses, whose presence in McCain-land was a sign of the then frontrunner’s strength.
Nelson was a key player in past Bush efforts, who brought other Bush veterans with him; Weaver was one of those who helped McCain in his almost successful 2000 effort, widely described as McCain’s “Karl Rove.” Today, the two are widely written off as the “fools” who lead the frontrunner down the path of spending too much, mucking up his message, losing his lead, and heading headlong into debt.
Their replacement, by prominent lobbyist Rick Davis (who himself has a long list of politically incorrect clients who will be in the news any day now) will, if you believe the spinners, turn the once promising and now sickly campaign around, the way John Kerry’s shakeup of his staff did in 2003.
Don’t believe it. As the Greeks say, “the fish rots from the head.”
Staff members tend to get too much credit when things go well, and too much blame when they go poorly. Nelson and Weaver are, for better and worse, the same guys they’ve always been, no smarter and no dumber. Having been in both places, genius and fool, I can say that genius is more fun, but generally no more deserved; fool stinks, but since you can’t replace the candidate, loyal staffers have little choice but to fall on their swords. It rarely works.
The difference between successful candidates and not-so-successful ones, in the last analysis, tends to be the candidate, and the decisions he makes, not who he hires. The geniuses from the Kerry primary campaign were, to a person, the fools from the general election campaign; what changed was not that they lost their marbles, but the competition got tougher.
What good staffers do, in addition to making the trains run on-time, is to ensure that the boss knows his options and understands their potential consequences. In any campaign bigger than a city council seat, presenting the options means airing pro’s and con’s; there is almost always someone at the table who thinks one thing, and someone else who thinks exactly the opposite; someone who counsels loyalty to the president, and someone who says you need to keep your distance; someone who advises taking a leadership role on a controversial issue like immigration, and someone who argues for taking a hike when it comes up for a vote.
The big calls don’t get made by staff; they get made by the candidate. Bill Clinton had smart people working for him in 1992, totally different smart people working for him in 1996; but what made them all geniuses was that the guy at the head of the table made the right calls more often than not. Many of the geniuses of the Clinton campaign were the fools from the Dukakis campaign; they didn’t get brain transplants, they got a better candidate.
The problem with the McCain campaign isn’t the guys running it, but the candidate himself. He’s lost his compass, something no one can give him. And in his case, it’s a particularly grievous loss, since authenticity and integrity were his strong points, which makes the idea that there is a strategic solution to his problems a contradiction in terms.
The campaign is out of money not because they spent more than the other frontrunners, but because they collected less. They collected less because people who once admired McCain, or at least thought he was the best bet in the field, don’t anymore. They didn’t turn on Nelson and Weaver; they turned on McCain.
Of course, no one ever quite says this to the candidate. When the polls come in looking as bad as they do for McCain right now, you don’t tell him that people don’t like him; you tell him they don’t know him. You don’t say that the candidate is the problem; you say that it’s a communications problem. You can’t replace the candidate, so you replace the people in charge of communicating and shaping his image. Assuming that the public is blind or stupid is easier than accepting that your candidate is the wrong man for the times.
But that is, sadly, just what John McCain is: the wrong man for the times. Perversely so, almost.
After showing almost no loyalty to the president when he was faring well, or at least passably, John McCain became his most ardent defender on the least popular issues of the time.
That might have been portrayed as a portrait in courage and character had McCain not been acting in such a crassly political way in the period leading up to his transformation. The man who once expressed disdain for the most conservative, most religious elements in his party couldn’t do enough, this time around, to try to appease them; the man whose great strength was his willingness to say what was on his mind became a cautious and calculating frontrunner, who wouldn’t have set foot on the Straight Talk Express of old. Having openly flirted with joining a ticket with John Kerry, he couldn’t get close enough to George W. Bush. It smacked not of conviction but calculation. Convinced that what he’d done last time wasn’t enough to win, he set about to change, and lost his core in the process.
The problem with political obituaries is that they tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. No one wants to give money to a guy the press has written off as a loser; without money, it’s hard to mount the kind of campaign you need to win. It’s true that John Kerry managed to turn his boat around four years ago, but he had two things going for him that McCain doesn’t.
First, Kerry didn’t start at the top, so he had nowhere to go but up. McCain did, which means not that he has to reverse things rather than simply right them. Second, the Democrats had nowhere else to turn: Howard Dean’s inexperience was bound to rear its head sooner or later, and it did; besides, Dean was so far ahead of everyone else in his opposition to the war that Democrats, still weary of being considered weak on defense, were inevitably going to take a second look at a candidate who seemed vulnerable to those age-old criticisms.
Of course, it isn’t over 'til it’s over. No votes have yet been cast. McCain is still a man of experience and toughness. The obvious alternatives all have problems of their own: Rudy Giuliani’s friends, not to mention his family, are full of land mines yet to be dealt with; Romney’s religion makes no sense, to put it mildly, to many voters; Fred Thompson is about to discover that the scrutiny afforded to a presidential candidate is a lot tougher than the treatment an actor gets from the Hollywood press.
But it’s hard to “reinvent” yourself when character is supposed to be your strong suit; hard to convince voters you can run the country if you can’t run a good campaign; and hard to compete with unprecedented spending if you’re bound by the limits that come with federal matching funds.
And nothing makes a 70-year-old man look older than an avalanche of bad news.
Let’s put it this way. A year ago, all the Democrats I knew were worried about John McCain. Some even said they would consider voting for him. We’re sleeping better these days, and it has nothing to do with Terry Nelson and John Weaver.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.