Commentary Magazine


The Schmidt Shift

If you ignore the obvious straining by the New York Times to suggest Karl Rove’s evil influence is somehow permeating the John McCain camp, this account of the expected changes and reasons behind the elevation of Steve Schmidt to effective campaign chief is illuminating. It suggests that, as he did when his campaign ran aground after immigration reform, McCain can assess a situation (e.g. the campaign was adrift) and readjust. He is not so isolated or impervious to input as some might have portrayed him to be.

Moreover, Schmidt seems focused on the right things: establishing a credible economic message and fighting like heck to get the campaign’s version of Barack Obama’s flaws before the voters. Goodness knows, they have a ton of material to work with.

For all the griping McCain could be much worse situated than he already is. His national poll numbers are within the margin of error. And purely because of his opponent’s errors (and the Obama team’s overestimation of the media’s tolerance for its candidate’s hypocrisy), Obama has done a darn good job starting several adverse storylines: arrogance, phoniness and lack of appreciation or understanding of military service.

Obama has not only initiated some self-destructive narratives, he has considerably damaged his standing with the mainstream media. I’m not talking about Left-leaning blogs or cable show partisans (who will never lose faith in the Agent of Change), but the political reporters who cover the campaigns on a daily basis and the center/liberal pundits for news networks and major newspapers. It is the latter group — those not impervious to evidence and reason — who have become more sober-minded, aggressive and skeptical of the Obama campaign and the entire pretense that he is a New Politician. The coverage has become increasingly more harsh and critical as Obama has stumbled, bumbled and fumbled through reversals on campaign financing and a host of issues and elevated Wesley Clark to the first major blunder of the general election.

What does this have to do with Schmidt? He’s been around long enough to know that public whining about the mainstream media — the favorite excuse and pastime of much of the McCain team to date — is utterly counterproductive. McCain, more than any other candidate, gives the mainstream media what they crave and what Obama does not: access, authenticity and candor. (And if this is correct, getting McCain into the political fight of his life would be an added benefit from Schmidt’s promotion.) Schmidt should figure out how to make the most of that and to re-establish the media’s respect, if not affection, for McCain. While Obama is at low ebb with the media, the opportunity is ripe. McCain need not become the darling of the media –but he can recalibrate the relationship which once was, and again can be, an advantage.