Whatever the reasoning, the strategists behind McCain’s 2000 run, Weaver and Mike Murphy, immediately voiced their disquiet over the potential long-term damage to the image they’d so carefully crafted. “There is no brand in politics you can just put on the shelf, run a campaign totally contrary to it, and then take it down later and still expect people to believe it,” Weaver told me at the time. “I just hope it’s still there for them when they need it.”
To be fair, it’s easy to see why Schmidt and his allies might have expected the McCain brand—or, if you prefer Just’s phrase, his meta-narrative—to be everlasting. Over the past eight years it had proved durable, most of all with the press, which consistently saw McCain’s deviations from what were supposed to be his core beliefs as aberrations. The speech at Falwell’s university? The reversals on the Bush tax cuts and torture? The support for the teaching of “intelligent design”? All had been dismissed by the press corps as necessary hedges, as a matter of McCain doing what he had to do to win the GOP nomination.
But then came September—and everything changed. The selection of Palin. The lipstick-pig imbroglio. The ad accusing Obama of supporting the teaching of sex education to kindergartners, along with a slew of other spots rife with distortions and fabrications. Perhaps it was the sheer number of such incidents, perhaps the depth of their mendacity. But the meme began to take hold in the press that the “old McCain” was dead. Or perhaps that he had never existed in the first place. “There was a mismatch between the way he was behaving and the narrative the press had bought into,” observes Just. “It made reporters wonder, ‘Have we been had?’ And when that question starts being asked, it’s a very bad place for a candidate to be.”
Fueling that questioning behind the scenes, it should be said, were countless professional Republicans—some who’d always regarded McCain as a fraud, others who believed in him all too much. Taken together, they gave the press a permission slip to question McCain’s authenticity and integrity. And as that skepticism began to take hold, it effectively doomed McCain’s maneuvers during the financial crisis (the suspension of his campaign, the threat to pull out of the debate) to be greeted with disdain and suspicion by the media. “By the time the financial crisis hit, we were past the tipping point,” says a national reporter who covers McCain. “Lipstick on a pig and sex ed were the last straw for some of McCain’s old hands and media allies. And because of this cynicism, he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt for his ‘suspension,’ and it was treated as the stunt it was.”
For McCain, seeing the press—“my base,” as he once famously put it—turn against him has apparently been more than painful. According to people close to the campaign, it accounts for much of the seething, simmering anger that he’s displayed of late on the hustings. And rather than attempting to mute that anger, Schmidt and his associates, with their attacks on the press, are only validating and even stoking it—with borderline disastrous results. The central memes that have always posed the greatest risk to McCain’s candidacy are that he’s dangerously erratic (the dark side of maverick) and that his notorious temper is forever threatening to explode. And, as evinced by the recent spate of stories about his sarcastic, cantankerous performance last week before the Des Moines Register editorial board (THE ANGRY WARRIOR? read the headline in a Washington Post blog), those two memes are now coursing wildly through the media’s collective bloodstream.
It’s possible, of course, that Sarah Palin’s debate performance—competent enough to relegate questions about her readiness and intellectual capacity to the back burner—may help McCain to find his way back to a happier place. But it will do little to alter the fundamentals of the race, which now tilt strongly in Obama’s favor. The financial crisis has not only put the economy front and center, but it has also raised the stakes of the election, thus making the kinds of attacks that kept McCain afloat in the late summer seem tactical and unpersuasive. Moreover, with the media filter where it is now, any wild-assed gambits that McCain undertakes are likely to be dismissed out of hand and vocally called out, thus diminishing their effectiveness.
The irony here is that, for so many months, the campaign being waged by Schmidt & Co. was viewed by the press as devious, sure, but deviously brilliant, delivering to McCain innumerable victories in the battle for the daily—and even hourly—news cycle. But presidential campaigns are perverse, quicksilvery things, and it appears that the very tactics that for a while gave McCain the faint hope of victory are now the main obstacle to any hope of a late-stage revival. Weaver and Murphy, it turns out, were right to worry. The new McCain may have won some news cycles, but he is losing the contest of the meta-narrative—and with it, perhaps, the election.