Steve Schmidt, Unplugged
John McCain’s senior campaign strategist will join me in the second hour of today’s program. We will look back at Campaign 2008.
UPDATE: Here is the transcript of that conversation.
HH: A special hour ahead. Right now, there’s a crisis enveloping the world, the pandemic. The White House matters a lot. I’m sure some of you are wishing you had John McCain in that office right now as opposed to the inexperienced Barack Obama. One person who tried to make that happen is my guest. Steve Schmidt joins me. He was the senior campaign strategist, and towards the end, the manager of the John McCain campaign for president. He is now back in California with the Mercury Public Affairs Group, and pleased to welcome him to the program. Steve, it’s great for you to make some time with us.
SS: Hugh, it’s great to be with you.
HH: Let’s first bring you up to date. What are you doing now that you’ve gotten the campaign six months behind you? What are you doing?
SS: Well, I’m back to my business, which is a public relations business. And back at work, staying off of the campaign trail. It was a very fun, demanding year for me on the McCain campaign. I’ve been in the inner circle of a winning presidential campaign and a losing one. Winning is more fun than losing, but back to regular life. I get to spend some time with my family and children which I didn’t get to do so much last year. So I’m disappointed with the result, but not disappointed the campaign’s over.
HH: Now Steve, I called you last week, sent you an e-mail because you made some news in a speech you gave to the Log Cabin Republicans. It’s a gay Republican group. And I’ve read your speech. I think it got actually misreported in significant ways around the country. What exactly did you say to them? What did you intend for the message to be?
SS: Well, the point that I made in the speech is that I am personally supportive of gay marriage. I believe that if you believe that people are born with their sexuality, as I do, that it is wrong for them to be disenfranchised for what I think is a central element of our national creed, the pursuit of happiness, which I think marriage is a key component of. But I said in the speech that I understand number one, my view’s a minority view in the Republican Party, and two, it will be for some time. What I did say is that the party ought to be respectful towards gays, it ought to show tolerance towards gays. That is important to so many suburban voters in parts of the country where we were once strong but no longer are. And I talked in the speech that as far as it goes for employment protections and extending legal protections to same sex partners so they can make end of life decisions for one another, or they can benefit from tax code status that everyone else benefits from, that they ought to be treated equally there. And I said specifically in the speech that you know, in my view, this is something that needs to be done through the initiative process, or this is something that needs to be done through the legislative process. But this needs to be enacted by the sovereign will of the people, not by judges trying to extend a right outside of the legislative process.[# More #]
HH: That’s what I think got missed in some of the reporting about your comments, which are really not, they’re a minority in the Republican Party, but they’re certainly not 10%. A lot of Republicans believe in same sex benefits, but most every one of them agree that the judiciary’s not the way to do that. Tell me, Steve Schmidt, what about, though, the backlash against people like Miss California from Perez Hilton, for simply, you know, saying what is her religious belief that marriage ought to be between one man and one woman? That’s pretty unprecedented to have sort of a cultural jihad taking place against people who believe in traditional marriage.
SS: Well, I think it’s counterproductive to the cause of people who are concerned about equality for gays, because many people that are sympathetic to the cause that will be turned off by a closed-minded attitude being directed, as you said, you know, in Miss California’s instance. And one of the thing that I tried to do in the speech is be very respectful towards people in the party that I know will disagree with my position, but that I have worked closely with in the past, for example, on Chief Justice Roberts’ confirmation, or with Justice Alito’s confirmation fights, when I had the opportunity to serve in the White House. I think that this is a debate and a subject where intolerance directed towards people who disagree with you doesn’t serve either side’s cause very well over the long term.
HH: We agree on that. Let’s turn to the present. We’ve got a pandemic taking shape, Steve Schmidt, and we’ve got a mountain of money being spent on a daily basis. We’re at the end of 100 days. Do you think that President Obama is guilty of truth in advertising discrepancies between how he campaigned and how he’s governed thus far?
SS: Well, clearly. I mean, look, on a wide range of issues that have been documented, the President says one thing, and then he goes ahead and he does the other. You saw this in the campaign, which he was largely able to get away with. And you see him doing it governing as President. You saw, for example, this manifest itself with the Rush Limbaugh controversy that broke out a while ago. If you say that I’m going to put down the childish things, I’m going to stop the divisive things, I’m going to run the country like an adult, you don’t then allow your political operation to target a talk radio host, no matter how influential he may be, or how vehemently you disagree with him. He’s not an elected official, and the President and his top people ought not to be engaged in that, in my view. And I think you can see that manifest itself from the rhetoric about well, I’m going to be responsible with spending taxpayer dollars, and you look at the doubling of the national debt over the next ten years. And it goes on and on and on and on and on. However, I do think that his political condition is strong, his approval rating is in the high 50s or the low 60s, depending on where you look. The right track number has moved for him in his favor, the number of people who view the country on the right track. And the Republican Party has not done anything to strengthen its political position structurally. And you see just today, a national poll out, ABC News/Washington Post, which the number of people identifying themselves as Republicans has fallen since March, has fallen since last November, and is now at the record low since 1983. And that’s a bad condition for us.
HH: Do you see Chairman Steele as doing anything that needs to get done? Or is it a slow start for him?
SS: Well, I think that to criticize him at this point is a mistake and is unfair, because at the end of the day, he’ll get judged on the success the party has in the mid-term elections, which are quite a ways off. But when you look at the Republican condition in the context of our voter registration numbers, the number of people who are identifying Republicans, identifying themselves as Republicans, when you look at the gap the party needs to make up on our use of technology, which certainly hurt the McCain campaign and would have hurt any of the Republicans who came through the nominating process, when you look at the gaps that need to be closed, we have a lot of work to do. And these first 100 days of the administration we’ll never get back. This is an important time to be building that foundation that we’ll need to have to win future elections.
HH: Steve Schmidt, in terms of looking back, was there any way that McCain could have won after the financial crisis set in?
SS: I don’t think so. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I understand it’s a self-serving answer if you’re me. We ran a campaign in the worst environment in the modern history of the country, and that was before the financial collapse. We were in an extraordinarily difficult position given the natural fatigue that occurs after eight years for one party, when one party holds the White House, the President’s unpopularity, and unprecedented resource disparity. And after the economic collapse, the right track number, the number of people you ask in a survey question if the country’s in the right track or wrong track, in our survey research, dropped to 5%. And I don’t think for the rest of my lifetime, and I’m 38 years old, I don’t think you’ll ever see that number drop to that level again. And what you saw essentially was the backbone of the Republican Party, the white, male, college educated voter, who over the span of that couple of weeks lost 40%, 50% of their life savings. They came to a conclusion hey, it can’t possibly get worse than this, so I’m going to give this guy a try. And once that happened, I don’t think that we had much of a chance left in the campaign. I think that…
HH: Do you regret the decision to suspend it and have the Senator go to D.C?
SS: Well, I think at the time, what every expert was saying in both parties was that if this legislation didn’t pass on Monday, that there would be a global financial collapse. And you literally couldn’t fine anybody who knew anything about these subjects who said anything contrary to that. So Senator McCain never viewed it as an option to vote against the bailout money the first round on September 29th, because frankly, there were no serious people in the country saying at that time that you could vote against this and not see a collapse of the global financial order. Now that being said, I think that hindsight always gives you 20/20. Whether he should have voted for it or against it, we’ll never get that chance again. But the fact of the matter is that weren’t the votes necessary to pass that legislation, it was a real crisis, and Senator McCain felt it was his job to be in Washington doing his job as a Senator.
HH: Hold that thought, Steve, I’ll be right back. I’ve got to go to break.
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HH: When we went to break, Steve, you were saying he thought it was his job to go to Washington, D.C. and be there to try and fix the meltdown. But then he ended up doing the debate after all. Did Barack Obama box you guys in?
SS: Well, I think that there’s no question that when he went back to Washington, it worked as a public relations matter for the first 24 hours. And then the Democrats came out, and if you recall this, they said that John McCain had come back to Washington, and he had scuttled a deal that had been reached that would save the global financial order. And the American people were fed a bill of goods on that. That was just nonsense. There was no deal, there were no votes for this thing. The narrative that was delivered by the Democrats and repeated by a lot of the media just wasn’t reality-based. And so we certainly lost the spin war, and not for the first time in the campaign were we affected by a media narrative that we weren’t able to contain or control, and was just unfair in its bias and its factual representations to the American people. And it is a fact, I think, that we lost control of the media message that week, and I don’t think it had anything to do with reality. At the end of the day, if you believed like we did because of the advice you received that if this did not pass, that the global financial order we’re selling to collapsed, we knew that if that happened, we were done since people blamed the advent of the crisis on Republicans. So we had two choices. We could try to affect an outcome that might give us a couple of weeks in the campaign to get back to normalcy, to turn the attention back to Obama and keep driving our message, or we could stay outside of Washington and hope for the best, but understand the result that all the experts were telling us was going to happen. And we decided to take our destiny into our own hands. And even thought it was a small chance, try to come up with an outcome that was most favorable to us. We, on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed, we were a couple of points ahead in that race. And from the day after it collapsed all the way through the end of the campaign, we just were never back on offense for another day in the campaign.
HH: Let’s talk a little bit about the media, and not just in that episode but throughout the campaign. Let’s start with Governor Palin. Do you think Charles Gibson was fair to her in the first opening interview that she granted?
SS: I do. I think it was a tough interview. I know Charlie Gibson well. I have a great deal of respect for him as an anchorman and as a serious journalist. And when you look at the problems that occurred in coverage during the 2008 campaign, I don’t think Charlie Gibson was one of them.
HH: How about Katie Couric and Governor Palin?
SS: Again, in my view, there was nothing that Katie Couric asked in that interview that was unfair to Governor Palin. It was not a good interview from the perspective of the McCain campaign, but there were no questions that were asked that were gotcha questions or where unfair questions. It was a devastating interview for Governor Palin when you look back on it. I think as I said the other day, I think it was the most consequential interview from a negative perspective that a candidate for national office has gone through, not since Roger Mudd interviewed Ten Kennedy in the late 1970s. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think that Governor Palin was treated fairly. She was treated unfairly by a lot of the media during the course of the campaign.
HH: I was lucky enough to get the first radio interview that Governor Palin did, but it was 30 days after her selection, three and a half weeks after the Couric and Gibson interviews. Why was she kept off of talk radio for so long, Steve Schmidt?
SS: We had a, I think that if you had it to do over again, it would have been to our benefit had she probably done your program and some others sooner. But 40 million people saw her give this speech on her nominating night at the convention. And it was just an extraordinary speech. It was one of the great convention speeches of the last generation by a candidate of either party. Nearly 40 million people watched the speech. We knew that there was going to be a very high level of interest in her first public remarks, and we tried to build suspense behind it to have her appear unfiltered directly to as many people as possible on each of those interviews leading up to the debate. The plan all along had been once we got through the debate, that we were going to have her totally unplugged out there with the media everywhere, but that at the end of the day, when you look historically at these things, what…that day that count for a vice presidential candidate are essentially the moment they’re announced…if you recall, Dan Quayle got off to a bad start at that first moment, the nominating speech, which he hit out of the park, the first interview, and the debate. And what we wanted to do was to make certain that she was introduced properly to the country, and that that introduction period would last from that announcement in Ohio through the debate, and then it would be completely, we would be completely unplugged. And at the end of the day, I don’t think, though, that, I don’t think that the decision to have her do the anchor interviews…yeah, I don’t look back on that as a mistake, because one of those interviews didn’t go well, I think that that those are causally not related. And I think that there was as much a likelihood that she could have been on any other show and not have had a good performance. And I just think that sometimes politicians have a bad performance, they had a bad day, and I think she had one of those days. And there was certainly a big, negative consequence to it.
HH: Did Senator McCain’s sometimes troubled relationship with talk radio hamper his ability to drive the message home, Steve Schmidt, in the fall?
SS: Did Senator McCain’s?
SS: I think that it is certainly true that in the primary, he was not the first choice of the talk radio universe out there. And we faced a heck of a headwind coming down the primaries. But once he became the nominee of the party, and the race became a choice between Senator McCain and Senator Obama, I think the talk radio world was very supportive, by and large, of Senator McCain. And really, once Governor Palin joined the ticket, there was very, very little flack that the campaign was taking from conservative talk radio. But I think it’s a statement of the obvious that Senator McCain wasn’t the first, or even the second or third choice by a lot of the talk radio world in this election. And I think their enthusiasm was less than it would have been for other candidates. But I think that that universe was pretty supportive in the general election.
HH: Yeah, I think that’s really one of the things that Sarah Palin did for the ticket. I’m going to talk to you after the break about whether you regret that, but…advising that she be selected. But I think without her, I don’t know that…or someone like her, that the conservative activist base represented by listeners to this and many other programs would have been involved, and to the degree and enthusiasm that they did.
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HH: Steve Schmidt, do you regret, do you wish…let me put it this way. If you had it to do over again, would you pick Sarah Palin again?
SS: Well, Senator McCain made the pick. I…and it’s been reported that I was a, that I was an advocate of it, and I was. And politically, I believe it was the right thing to do in the time. We were at a very difficult political situation. And we had basically four things that we needed to accomplish during the Republican convention. And I believed internally that if we didn’t come out of that convention with a lead, we wouldn’t have a chance in the race. And we needed to do four things. We needed to excite the Republican base, finally, and this would be our last chance. We needed to appeal to women voters and to excite the middle. We needed to finally and completely distance ourselves from President Bush’s administration. And the last thing we needed to do was to reestablish that maverick patina or credential around McCain. And initially, the Palin pick helped accomplish all four of those things. I think at the end, it is fair to say that we were successful in one of those things, which was exciting the base of the Republican Party. And at the end of the day, we were not successful through the pick in accomplishing the other three things. And I think the result, and I think the reason for that is twofold. One was the collapse of the economy, which changed the dynamics of the race irrevocably. And the second reason was the Katie Couric interview, which was a damaging moment over the, it was a damaging moment for the Governor’s image in the campaign. But no, I don’t regret it, and I still believe electorally, her pick helped the Senator in the election. And I think that when you look at all the things that we had stacked up against us, I believe it was the right pick to make, politically, still.
HH: Did you anticipate her becoming the lightning rod that she has become both during the campaign and since?
SS: No. And when she…I knew there would be a great deal of excitement, obviously, and I had communicated that to her even before she had met Senator McCain, and had a very direct conversation with her about the fact that she would, within a few hours, if this project went forward, become one of the most famous people not just in the country, but in the world. And I had a very similar discussion with her in the hours leading up to her announcement that I had with Chief Justice Roberts and with Justice Alito, who I think experienced something like that but on a smaller scale. And you go from anonymity to global fame in a matter of seconds. And I do think it was a unique set of circumstances. But just the frenzy of coverage that broke out around her, from its intensity, was much greater than anything any of us could have anticipated.
HH: Was she ready?
SS: Was she ready for the coverage?
SS: I think that nobody could possibly have been ready for the level and the intensity of coverage. But I do think that it is the business of people who run for national office to be ready for that intensity of coverage. And I think that she dealt with it as well as anybody could have dealt with it at the time, but I don’t think anyone could have been ready for it.
HH: In terms of her preparation on the foreign policy stuff, did the campaign serve her well?
SS: I think the campaign put a lot of highly experienced people with her to help her on the foreign policy issues. And I think those people did serve her well. I think that there was a team of people around her who helped prepare her for her debate with Joe Biden. And if you look at the result of that debate with Joe Biden, she certainly deserves the credit, but there was a number of people who were involved in the preparation process who served her well. And I think that there was a group of people who worked very, very hard to make her a success as a candidate for vice president, and still think very highly of her.
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HH: Steve, I want to go back to Iowa and Mike Huckabee’s upset win there. How much did the McCain nomination depend upon Mike Huckabee bleeding Mitt Romney?
SS: Well, when the McCain campaign was upside down in the ditch in July and August of 2007, or excuse me, 2007, we made a couple of assumptions. And they were as follows. One was that Fred Thompson was a formidable candidate, great candidate, but he missed his window, and that he had waited too long to jump in. We believed that Mitt Romney was always Senator McCain’s chief rival in this campaign, was the most dangerous opponent, and we believed that he had made a mistake by setting himself as a must-win in Iowa. He should have made New Hampshire his must-win. And we always believed that there would be a social conservative challenger that emerged to Governor Romney in Iowa, and that that person would pull Governor Romney into issue positions that were problematic from the perspective of what his record had been as governor of Massachusetts. And we believed that there was going to be fluidity in that race, that he might get pinched there, and that of course Senator McCain, in order to win, had to win New Hampshire. And Governor Romney losing to Governor Huckabee in Iowa certainly strengthened McCain in New Hampshire, weakened Romney in New Hampshire, and basically with the way that it worked out, we were ultimately able to get into a two person race against Governor Romney as we went into the bigger states-Florida, and then the Super Tuesday states, and ultimately were able to prevail, barely, over someone who was a very, very tough candidate. And I think if he runs in 2012, is starting out as one of the couple of people that would be, is likely to be our nominee.
HH: Let me ask you just as a professional, not your hope for, not your wishes and dreams, who would you have to predict right now is going to be the Republican nominee in 2012?
SS: If I had to bet money on it, if I had to bet money on it today, you’d have to say that the people that I think look very good, very strong right now are Governor Romney, Governor Huntsman. I think Newt Gingrich, should he run, is going to be a very formidable, very formidable candidate. But the history of the Republican Party nominating process is that it almost always goes to someone who’s been around the track once before. And in that instance, in this instance, it would be Governor Romney. I thought he was a very scary opponent looking from the other side of the table in that he was almost like a learning organism at the end. He just kept getting better week by week by week, and kept becoming stronger. And I think these national campaigns are very unique, and I think most people learn a great deal with they go through them. And I think one of the reasons that President Bush was able to make it through the process the first time, unlike most people on the Republican side, is because he had been up close and personal through a couple of national races. And I think Mitt Romney is a candidate, is a far stronger candidate, prospectively, for the ’12 race because of his experience in ’08 than he was heading into the ’08 race.
HH: Key question, Steve Schmidt, as you know the rules in Iowa and New Hampshire so well. I fully expect Democrat activists, MoveOn.org, to manipulate our process to the extent that they are allowed to do so through open primary rules in those states and others. Does the Republican Party have to take a serious look at making sure they are not manipulated by changing up the rules in Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps even the primary calendar?
SS: Well, it’s very important that the integrity of the process be maintained. I would be one that would argue that the integrity of the process being maintained has nothing to do with whether you allow independent voters to vote in the primary. I think it’s important that we have independents vote in some of our primaries, because we obviously cannot win elections unless we have independent voters finding common cause with us on a number of issues. That being said, you can’t have a situation develop where with the power of the internet and the social networking phenomenon, where you have wholesale and widespread manipulation of our process to try to nominate what the Democrats believe is the favored candidate or the weakest candidate to face off against President Obama.
HH: And so how do you accomplish that?
SS: I don’t know, but I do know that it’s a mistake to try to close the New Hampshire primary to independent voters. I do believe that it is critical that our party being to find common cause with those independents again that have been with us for so much of the last generation. And I think that…one of the things that I tried to make in the speech that you…point that I try to make in the speech that you referenced at the beginning was this. We ought to find, we ought to focus on the things that we as Republicans all agree on together-the size of government, taxation, strong national defense, and then reach out to the middle to the independents who will agree with us on those issues. And I think that is the base of our, or the foundation of our way back. You know, President Obama couldn’t answer a question in Europe about American exceptionalism. I think that almost all Republicans agree with our definition of American exceptionalism, and independents agree with it as well, which is essentially this. Since the beginning of time, the United States of America has fed more people, clothed more people, liberated more people than all of the other countries of the world put together since the beginning of time. We’re not just a country that’s on the alphabet of nations, laundry list at the United Nations. And I think that all Republicans essentially agree with that, and a lot of independents do. And that’s the starting places for how we rebuild our majority.
HH: Steve Schmidt, a fascinating conversation. I appreciate your taking the time to do a look forward and a look back with us. I look forward to many more conversations like this as we move down the road towards 2010 and 2012. Thank you, Steve.
End of interview.