Calmly, forcefully, precisely, mechanically, like Roger Federer tearing up the baseline at Flushing Meadows, Schmidt swatted back every query fired at him. McCain had been “aware of this private family matter” since “last week” (though he wouldn’t say precisely when). The vet was “thorough” (though he offered no details). “Life happens in families,” Schmidt went on. “If people try to politicize this, the American people will be appalled.” As for Palin’s capacity to serve effectively, Schmidt, ginning up his highest dudgeon, declared, “I can’t imagine that question being asked of a man. It’s offensive.”
The performance was vintage Schmidt, a deft admixture of minimalism, mau-mauing, and faux outrage. But man, oh, man, did the guy look miserable delivering it—and who could blame him? Already Gustav had derailed the opening day of the convention. And now, rather than building up McCain or tearing down Obama, Schmidt found himself scrambling to defend a V.P. nominee who seemed, at that moment, potentially indefensible.
Within 24 hours, however, Schmidt’s posture had shifted from defense to offense, to waging war on the media—a time-honored tactic that Schmidt has turned into an art form. He inveighed against the New York Times. Against the left-wing blogosphere. Against (unnamed) reporters who he claimed (without a scintilla of evidence) asked if Palin would undergo a paternity test for Trig. Against the “smear after smear after smear” being pursued by a press corps “on a mission to destroy” her. Against the “old-boys’ network that has come to dominate the news Establishment.” Some commentators believed that Schmidt was genuinely angry. Others suggested he was working the refs. But the truth was that he had only one objective in mind: to rally the delegates in the hall around Palin as a victim of the elite, uppity, anti-conservative media. And in this he manifestly succeeded.
“All summer everyone assumed that this race would be decided by whether McCain could bring down Obama,” says a Republican consultant about Schmidt’s success. “But I think that’s already happened. They’ve cut him open. Now I think what’s really going to determine the outcome of this race is whether Obama can bring down McCain.”
What at first seemed to be an ad hoc adaptation will now almost certainly become a full-blown Agnewian strategy. For one thing, few ostensible depredations arouse the passions of rank-and-file Republicans, not to mention right-wing talk-radio hosts, more than liberal media bias. For another, the imputations of such bias create a convenient pretext for shielding Palin from rigorous press scrutiny—hard questions about foreign affairs and domestic policy that there is no plausible reason to believe she is currently competent to answer. On the morning after her speech, in fact, former Bush aide and Schmidt ally Nicole Wallace, appearing on Morning Joe with Time’s Jay Carney, provided a vivid preview of how the McCain side is likely to turn denying access to Palin into a pseudo-populist cause:
CARNEY: “We don’t know yet, and we won’t know until you guys allow her to take questions, can she answer tough questions about domestic policy, foreign policy … ”
WALLACE: “But I mean, like, from who? From you?”
CARNEY: “Yeah, from me.”
WALLACE: “Who cares? No offense.”
CARNEY: “Who cares? I think the American people care.”
WALLACE: “The American people want to see her. Who cares if she can talk to Time magazine? She can talk to the American people.”
The irony is that much of the media’s skepticism about Palin was stoked by Republican sources who believed her manifestly unqualified for the V.P. slot, and that her selection was politically damaging to McCain. “They have spent months making the argument that Obama is dangerously inexperienced, that the White House is no place for on-the-job training,” explains one Republican media savant. “And now they’ve put this woman on the ticket who didn’t have a passport until a year ago? How can they now come back and say Obama isn’t ready? He looks like Colin Powell compared to her.” This person went on: “The one thing the Republican brand had left was national security. And now it’s, ‘Hey, she likes guns, let’s put her in line to be commander-in-chief!’ It’s absurd.”
Most Democrats concurred that by picking Palin, McCain was forfeiting the experience argument. But one of the party’s sharpest strategists disagreed. “The construct is this: Would you rather have a vice-president with limited experience or a president with comparably limited experience, possibly less, depending on how you define experience?” this person e-mailed to me. “The irony is that Obama made this both possible and plausible. Given this, McCain can and should continue to argue ‘ready to lead’—and I daresay he will with effectiveness. And I think the Obama team is making a mistake if they press this issue, because then the race becomes about experience, which is exactly what McCain wants.”
He certainly seems to—and so does Schmidt, who vigorously contended to Katie Couric that Palin “is more experienced and more accomplished than Senator Obama.” Asked to justify the claim, Schmidt replied, “Well, Barack Obama was in the United States Senate for one year before he took off … to run for president full time. He was a state senator, he had no executive decisions. And 130 times [on] tough votes, he took a pass and voted present. Leaders have to make decisions. Governor Palin makes decisions.”