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Radnor Geopolitical Report


Washington, July 2007

 

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McCain meltdown? Maybe, but for different reasons

by Ken Feltman

It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.

- Lewis Carroll

A political campaign is either controlled chaos or uncontrolled chaos, and nothing else. Nobody knows for sure but everybody suspects that it's uncontrolled chaos. A few naive people think somebody, somewhere, really is in control. The real danger to the campaign comes when both the campaign manager and the candidate think that they are in control. Believe me: They never are.

Senator McCain has made painful campaign staff changes. These changes have triggered the usual predictions that his campaign is in meltdown and that he will soon abandon his pursuit of the Republican nomination. But before we assume that McCain is out, we should look at the same history that McCain examined and decide whether he drew the correct conclusions. If he did, his campaign may still be viable.

Recent history begins with Senator John Kerry?s 2004 campaign. A few months before he secured the Democratic nomination, he was forced to do almost exactly what McCain has just done: Kerry jettisoned long-time loyalists who occupied key campaign positions (with large salaries) and consolidated control in a few strong hands. His opponents counted him out and began to ignore him in their negative advertising and comparative statements. The media buried him. His friends expressed their regret and told him that he had fought the good fight. The Kerry campaign seemed to go into a black hole.

Then other campaigns with bloated and often feuding staffs began to have the same problems. The frontrunning Howard Dean campaign was especially crippled because Governor Dean insisted on having all decisions channeled through one veteran aide who, although devoted to Dean and clearly with his best interests at heart, was unable to handle the crushing demands. Dean refused to open the clogged communications channel and everything slowed down. Volunteers complained. Reporters were frustrated. Campaign workers spoke first off the record and then openly about the impending crisis. It all sounded very much like the sniping and backbiting that had infested the Kerry campaign a few months earlier.

The Kerry lesson: Fire 'em all, then hope the other guy fails

Then Senator Kerry blew past Dean and into the lead. He all but sewed up the nomination a few weeks later and Dean ended his chances with a scream in Iowa.

The lesson that McCain has learned from Kerry?s radical reorganization of his 2004 staff structure is that it can be done successfully, especially if done early and in one bloody swoop. His earlier incremental changes, he concluded, had not been successful. He needed to make the most painful cuts. He did. He sacked his two closest and most trusted aides, including the imaginative man who came up with the idea for the Straight Talk Express in 2000. That aide was so close to McCain, so trusted, that he helped the mobility-limited war veteran dress and comb his hair.

But the two aides had feuded for months with the campaign?s business manager. Campaign insiders describe that man as cold blooded, suspicious of creative types, driven by the budget, lacking the political passion of the departed true believers, a ?numbers guy.? He is now the campaign manager. He may be exactly what McCain needs at this time. But probably not.

Generally, campaigns have a built-in rift between the ?damn-the-expense? creative people and the ?green-eyeshade? budget people. Corporate people and bureaucrats, used to budgets and schedules, are usually repelled by the wild creative types who live on caffeine and pizza, change and reaction, and who never seem to dress for success. But it is these creative types, more often than not, who turn their imaginations into winning strategies. Then, the imaginative strategies are subjected to the discipline of the budget. The budget depends on successful fundraising. Fundraising depends on a candidate whose issue positions are appealing to potential contributors. A campaign, then, is rather like a dog chasing his tail.

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The creative folks have the intensity to work regular 18 hour days, seven days a week. They seem to have a sixth sense about what will work and what will not. They live on the edge of mania. They throw things. They abuse volunteers. They are disrespectful to financial contributors. They drive the candidate?s family crazy. Still, more often than you would believe, they come up with winning themes. The challenge for the candidate and the senior campaign official is to keep the creative minds on the team and feed them the money they need to dream up and create the winning campaign. These creative types know that winners can always raise money to pay their debts. Losers have trouble raising anything.

McCain is using the Kerry bloodletting as one guide. He is also looking back at other campaigns, such as Senator Dole's 1996 effort. Dole famously fired two aides on an airport tarmac and then flew off, leaving the consultants behind. Governor Ronald Reagan pulled off one of the most amazing firings in presidential campaign history (see box below).

But McCain's whole campaign is based on another example - the 2000 Bush campaign that obliterated McCain's chances with a withering attack in South Carolina. McCain was so traumatized by that debacle that he constructed a staff and a plan to guarantee that it would not happen in 2008.

The Bush example: Continuity, not change

One of McCain's former top aides had a senior position in President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. He was hired to guide an inevitable campaign. Those are regular campaigns by party stalwarts who are destined to get the nomination - their selection is inevitable - because it is their turn and they have paid their dues. McCain's brain trust decided that the best thing to do was be as inevitable as Bush in 2000, Dole in 1996 or Bush in 1988.

Is there a problem with that strategy? Yes, a very obvious one. In fact, it is so obvious that it is amazing that the McCain campaign went ahead with the strategy: The 2008 election will be about change. The country is tired of Bush and anxious for a fresh start. So why is McCain - that effective outsider from 2000 - running, in essence, for the third George W. Bush term? Amazingly, no one in the campaign has been able to articulate why. Maybe somebody, somewhere, knows. Campaigning for continuity is not a winning idea this time. So how did these brainy creative types get the theme so wrong? McCain dictated the strategy.

Guy Vander Jagt

Guy Vander Jagt died last month after a long career in Congress followed by a successful lobbying career. He had a role in the most unusual firing of a campaign manager.

At the Republican National Convention in Detroit in 1980, Rep. Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan was the keynote speaker. A protestant clergyman, he was one of the most gifted political orators of the day. He brought his skill at uplifting sermons to his political speeches and was positioned to make a bid for the vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket.

Then, candidate Ronald Reagan shook up his staff. His respected campaign manager, an elder statesman of the Republican Party, was replaced by the campaign manager of another presidential candidate. James Baker was originally George H. W. Bush's campaign manager. Suddenly Baker was running the Reagan campaign - and the convention as well.

Vander Jagt's prime-time keynote address was pushed back and he was asked to wait while the convention dragged on with routine, boring motions. He was escorted to the green room (the room where speakers get ready and await their appearance). But this green room was not in the convention hall. It was outside, a construction trailer, with faulty air conditioning on a hot and humid evening. Soon, Vander Jagt was sweltering. He got a new starched shirt and put it on. Finally, the next day, after having his enthusiasm sweat out of him, he made his speech to a diminished TV audience.

Vander Jagt's campaign for VP was over. George H. W. Bush was in. Was it possible that to get Baker to run his campaign, Reagan had to make Bush his vice president? An engineer of the switch, Margaret Tutwiler, was an assistant to Baker and had formerly worked for Ken Feltman, who was supporting the Vander Jagt bid. Tutwiler only smiled when asked what really happened.

Good natured about his banishment to the green room, Vander Jagt became a prodigious fundraiser for the GOP. Shortly before his death, he told Feltman, 'When campaigning, I learned to go to the men's room anytime I had a chance and never to go to the green room if Jim Baker was running things.'

McCain the person could not pull off the strategy he chose. McCain is not the kind of candidate who can appeal to the conservatives who rallied to Bush in 2000 and 2004. McCain compounded his problems by continuing his maverick ways just enough to alienate the Bush core voters who were to become his core voters. Never enthusiastic for McCain, they stopped contributing to him when he crossed them on immigration and Iraq.

Imagine! McCain became the apologist for what most voters think is wrong with President Bush but did not line up with what those voters think is right about Bush.

Seeing the wrong past clearly

Therefore, when we decide whether we think McCain can remake his campaign into a winner, we need to remember that he has been uncanny in looking back and learning the wrong lessons. McCain drew the wrong lessons about the 2000 Bush campaign. Now he has drawn the wrong lessons about the Kerry 2004 campaign. Twice, he has seen the wrong past clearly. Now his campaign may have to take public financing to stay alive. A few years ago, he teamed up with a Senate Democrat to create an unrealistic campaign contributions scheme. He will learn first hand how short sighted he was. Funny how those things come back to bite you.

Does McCain finally see the future as clearly as he twice saw the wrong past?





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