Campaigns/Elections

Lords of Undiscipline

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This gruesome CNN exchange with John McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb (on loan from The Weekly Standard), highlights something I've long observed but rarely written about: The McCain campaign's stunning lack of discipline. First, take a look at Goldfarb missing an opportunity to paint Rick Sanchez as a rabid Obama fan by instead turning the entire segment into a bizarre Obama-consorts-with-known-anti-Semites-who-we-all-know-but-I-won't-name:

Goldfarb may be a swell guy in private (I've heard rumors to that effect), but you don't win elections by deploying non-professionals who aren't ready for the ultimate prime time of a presidential campaign. And it really ain't Goldfarb I'm talking about here (though his campaign blog amounts to a churlish dartboard on the face of the evil MSM), it's seemingly everyone in McCain's campaign, from alter-ego Mark Salter on down. Consider the kind of comments that have leaked from the McCain shop over the past few weeks:

The Politico:

"These people are going to try and shred [Palin] after the campaign to divert blame from themselves," a McCain insider said, referring to McCain's chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, and to Nicolle Wallace, a former Bush aide who has taken a lead role in Palin's campaign. Palin's partisans blame Wallace, in particular, for Palin's avoiding of the media for days and then giving a high-stakes interview to CBS News' Katie Couric, the sometimes painful content of which the campaign allowed to be parceled out over a week.

"A number of Gov. Palin's staff have not had her best interests at heart, and they have not had the campaign's best interests at heart," the McCain insider fumed

CNN:

"She is a diva. She takes no advice from anyone," said this McCain adviser. "She does not have any relationships of trust with any of us, her family or anyone else.

"Also, she is playing for her own future and sees herself as the next leader of the party. Remember: Divas trust only unto themselves, as they see themselves as the beginning and end of all wisdom."

New York Times magazine:

"Leaving aside her actual experience, do you know how informed Governor Palin is about the issues of the day?" The senior adviser thought for a moment. Then he looked up from his beer. "No," he said quietly. "I don't know."

To which I'll add one stupid second-hand anecdote: I shared a cab ride from Reagan National after the Republican National Convention with a legal adviser who happened to stay in the McCain campaign hotel. One night late, she said, she was at the bar with several McCain staffers, and the solicitous hotel staff asked if there was anything else they could get for them? "Yeah," groused one (she said). "A vetted vice presidential candidate"

Even leaving the bizarre Palin feud out of it, there are near-daily comments that make you wonder why campaign staffers aren't being fired. Probably the worst example of all was the early-October quote by a "top McCain strategist" in the New York Daily News that "If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we're going to lose." Thus the headlines for a week (rightly) focused on the fact that McCain was intentionally diverting the conversation away from the issue Americans care about most. Brilliant!

On some important level, campaign comportment is really, really low on my totem pole of who-gives-a-rip (far below, say, attitudes and policies toward free trade, where McCain beats Obama like a gong), but after a while you look at the gross indiscipline of a political organization and begin to wonder, is the guy at the top even competent at running a large, pressure-filled organization?

Without soliciting a single one, I've received earfuls of off-the-record anecdotes over the years from McCain insiders bemoaning and detailing various manifestations of organizational civil wars, incompetence, murky contracting…. And to speak against my own interest for a minute, I shouldn't be the guy hearing this stuff. Winging it frat-boy style may be a hoot for those who enjoy 1 a.m. hotel-bar bull sessions, but unless you've got a super-coherent campaign message–and Lord knows, McCain does not–it's a recipe for embarrassment, and failure.