Winston Churchill said “history is written by the victors.” But too often in politics, where professional tacticians want to preserve their permanent paychecks by deflecting their mistakes onto everyone but themselves, losers often desperately attempt to re-write history.
And that is exactly what GOP establishment operatives, aided and abetted by members of the mainstream media who want to preserve access to them, are now doing to the history of the 2008 presidential campaign, as they attempt to blame Palin--and, by association, non-establishment grassroots conservatives--for their own professional malpractice during that campaign.
In nearly every recent story written about Romney’s vice presidential selection process, a GOP operative is quoted saying something in the vein of “Palin’s shadow hangs over the selection process.”
For example, Sara Fagen, George W. Bush’s political director, told the Associated Press, “There's one thing the people in the Republican establishment agree on: There was clearly not a thorough thought process or vetting that went into the selection of Sarah Palin. They didn't ask the fundamental questions or spend enough time with her...”.
Bill Schneider, in a Politico opinion piece, wrote:
The Palin choice hangs over Romney like a sword of doom... Palin was probably the worst vice presidential choice in modern times. What was McCain thinking? Probably that he needed to shore up his conservative base, which distrusted McCain ever since he challenged conservatives’ ascendancy over the GOP in 2000. Remember McCain’s attack that year on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance"?
The implication is that McCain lost the 2008 election because of Palin--that Palin was not qualified to be president and had no record of accomplishments. That narrative might help the résumés of the McCain handlers who mismanaged her, most notably Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace. However, it ignores certain key facts, such as how Palin enabled McCain to temporarily take the lead in the 2008 campaign, Palin’s record of reform as Alaska’s governor, and Steve Schmidt’s mismanagement of the McCain campaign -- especially his failure and/or refusal to fully vet candidate Obama.
Do they really believe Palin, who took McCain’s campaign off of life support and put it temporarily in the lead, was a worse vice presidential choice than Thomas Eagleton, Dan Quayle, or John Edwards? As Mark Levin said on his radio show, the establishment is trying to re-write history again because, if not for Palin, McCain would have been a bigger loser.
So how did this impression turn into its current establishment consensus?
The Origins of A False Narrative: Leave No Establishment Consultant Behind
Schmidt risked the farm--and the election -- on a gimmicky tactic that came up snake eyes.
POLITICO reported on a memo, "Shield Steve Schmidt From McCain Blame," put together in the waning days of the 2008 presidential campaign by associates of Schmidt to absolve him of campaign mismanagement. The memo lays out a strategy to shape conventional wisdom by targeting mainstream journalists and Republican talking heads and to blitz the media landscape with friendly talking points that would make it seem like even Ronald Reagan could not have won in 2008.
The obvious purpose was to absolve the professional operatives of all blame, allowing them to get hired again and sell their “snake oil” magic to the next politician. The quid pro quo was simple: we give you exclusive “gossip” and minutiae and you get exclusive reporting and access.
Of course Palin was vetted, and she was vetted by none other than thorough Washington, D.C. power-lawyer A.B. Culvahouse. In an interview Culvahouse gave to The Washingtonian magazine, he described his impressions of Palin when he was vetting her: "She gave a very thoughtful answer to all those questions. People who are more experienced, more savvy--maybe some of them gave less savvy answers...".
But nobody mentions this inconvenient fact, and that is why it is important to look more closely at the “Schmidt Memo,” as it is important for two reasons.
First, it reveals how conventional wisdom is often invented for personal gain in the political world, and the same tactics are usually employed to try to destroy conservatives. Second, the tactics described in the memo are the exact same ones used by the Democrat-Media complex to tear down conservatives. Palin and her supporters have had to relentlessly and ruthlessly combat this false narrative, which has become conventional wisdom among the political and chattering class. If Team Schmidt employed these tactics to try to preserve Schmidt’s reputation, one can only expect they employed similar tactics to smear Palin.
On June 3, 2008, when the general election campaign essentially began, then-Senator Obama would speak in Minnesota while McCain would speak in Louisiana. On that day, Obama won enough delegates to officially become the Democratic nominee, after a long slog of a primary against Hillary Clinton, and he could finally pivot toward the general election.
McCain, on the other hand, had essentially wrapped up the Republican nomination after he won the Florida primary four months earlier. But during those ensuing four months, McCain could not come up with a coherent message against Obama and the Democrats, or for himself.
On that night of June 3, 2008, the contrast between the two candidates and, more importantly, the campaign operations could not have been more different. Obama spoke in front of 25,000 people at the Xcel Center in Minnesota, presenting the country with his campaign's opening argument. McCain, on the other hand, spoke in front of a sickly green background which was widely panned. His speech was devoid of any coherent message, theme, or strategy that might inspire anyone outside of his circle of political mercenaries, who were clearly in over their heads.
This was a harbinger of more incompetence and mismanagement to follow.
The McCain campaign still could not find a coherent raison d'être for his candidacy in the following months. The campaign, led by Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, inexplicably thought that Republicans would accept Joe Lieberman as a potential vice president and did not nix this idea upon hearing it. In fact, they actually floated this harebrained notion to the press.
Then, when they got lucky and picked Sarah Palin, whose convention speech (which more people watched than Obama's) was responsible for the McCain campaign’s brief lead over Obama, they proceeded to mismanage Palin on the campaign trail. Because Palin was a last-minute selection, they should have allowed her to comment on all the issues of the day as if she were the candidate. Then they could market the ticket as a true team of mavericks whose opinions on various issues might be different, but who would be united by their passion for reforming Washington. Instead, Schmidt and Wallace tried to program Palin as an establishment, Washington D.C. creature, which she never was and did not have the DNA ever to become.
But the greatest act of malpractice--perhaps in the history of any presidential campaign--was when Schmidt, Wallace, and McCain's mercenaries decided to go "all in" on September 24, 2008 when the financial crisis hit and the nation was deciding between the inexperienced first-term senator and McCain. That moment presented voters with an opportunity to see who could best handle such an unexpected crisis.
McCain suspended his campaign, went to Washington, D.C. without having read a three-page paper which outlined the terms of TARP, and was outclassed by Obama to the point where the average voter began to trust the inexperienced Chicago politician as someone who could be a competent manager of the nation's economy. Meanwhile, the nation saw McCain's disastrous performance and viewed him as erratic and borderline senile. Of course, McCain is competent and not senile, but his campaign mercenaries ignominiously made him look like he was, just like they would make Palin seem the caricature she was not.
It was after this moment of ineptitude that the election was, for all intents and purposes, over. And it was then that the paid mercenaries had to hatch a plan to save their faces and reputations and cover up their incompetence so that they would not be laughed at and run out of town.
As POLITICO described then:
"These people are going to try and shred her 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, noting that Wallace left an executive job at CBS to join the campaign.
Why? Because their financial livelihoods and reputations were at stake:
Beyond the obvious reputation-burnishing--much of it by professional operatives whose financial livelihoods depend on ensuring that they are not blamed for a bad campaign--there was a more substantive dimension. Barring a big McCain comeback, and a turnabout in numerous congressional races where the party was in trouble, the GOP was on the brink of a soul-searching debate about what to do to reclaim power. Much of that debate would hinge on appraisals of what McCain could have done differently.
And the truth would have disqualified these mercenaries from any future employment or consulting contracts:
A House Republican leadership aide in an e-mail was no more complimentary, “The staff has been remarkably undisciplined, too eager to point fingers, unable to craft any coherent long-term strategy. The handling of Palin… has been nothing short of political malpractice."
This is where the Schmidt memos come into play.
The Political-Media Industrial Complex: Cronyism Among The Permanent Political-Media Class
The author of the memo, McCain operative Brian Jones, who also worked in the same political consulting company that then-employed Schmidt, Mercury Public Affairs, wrote that the following talking points should be strategically turned into conventional wisdom by targeting opinion shapers in Washington. Jones wrote that Schmidt allies “should in the course of natural conversations with friendly reporters begin to provide positive messaging -- off the record.” On Oct. 29, 2008, three days after the original memo was written, a second memo was sent that fleshed out the plan in even more detail, assigning specific Mercury Public Affairs employees specific members of the media to target and spin like fools.
When contacted by Politico, Schmidt said he knew nothing about the pre-election plan or the memo. He said he had “no idea that this existed until today.” Here are some of the talking points in the memo that Schmidt said he had not heard of until he was contacted by Politico:
• Despite an extremely challenging electoral environment, by mid-September John McCain was ahead of Barack Obama in the majority of national public opinion polls and was also ahead in the race for 270 votes in the Electoral College based on polls in key battleground states.
• John McCain was ahead despite being written off by the "media intelligentsia" in the summer of 2007, then again in late spring, 2008 and after the Democrat convention.
• With the collapse of the global financial markets in mid-September, an already challenging electoral environment turned absolutely toxic for anyone with an R behind their name. In fact, nearly 95% of the country felt America was headed in the wrong direction. Add to this mix an incumbent Republican president whose approval ratings were hovering in the mid 20s and you’ve got a campaign running into a category 5 headwind.
But upon closer examination, it seems beyond belief that Schmidt did not know of these memos when one examines his statements during the time the memos were being circulated.
On November 4, 2008, in a gaggle with mainstream media reporters, as reported by TIME, Schmidt said the following:
We did our absolute best in this campaign in really difficult circumstances. We had some tough cards to play all the way through, and we hung in there all the way. You look back in the middle of September, [the] economic collapse of the country, a number of different things. We did the best we can in historically difficult circumstances from a political climate. It is entirely doubtful that anyone will have to run in a worse political climate than the one John McCain had to run in this year... The global economic collapse in the middle of September occurred at a time when we were ahead in the race, dropping the right-track number to roughly 5, 6, 7 percent, which are numbers that I don’t think will ever be seen again in any of our lifetimes. It was a bad economic environment throughout the election, where people were angry at the incumbent party. At the end of the day, I don’t think there is another Republican that the party could have nominated that could have made this a competitive race the way that John McCain did. It’s one thing we know for sure is that at a Congressional level the Senate Democratic majorities and the House Democratic majorities will expand. The party has been very unpopular. The president’s approval numbers were not helpful in the race. But the party as a whole is unpopular with the American people, and that was a big albatross.
Three days later, on November 7, 2008, in an e-mail
to Ana Marie Cox, a liberal journalist who then wrote for The Daily Beast, Schmidt wrote nearly the exact same talking points that blamed everyone but himself for McCain’s disastrous performance, making it obvious that Schmidt was briefed and on message. His contention that he had no knowledge of the "absolve Schmidt" memos seems patently absurd.
The memo also suggested “additional actions” to take, including, “Monitor coverage (pre and post election) for Schmidt mentions;” “keep tabs on all post election panels and forums, ensuring we have individuals aligned with MPA participating on them and that ‘friendly’ speakers have our message points;” and “post-election, book Steve on a TV program that will allow him to broadly discuss the election while also highlighting his personal side (e.g. - Larry King).”
According to the memo, mainstream journalists and Republican talking heads were to be specifically targeted. As can be seen in the list below, the memo had representatives from every mainstream and Republican organization such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, POLITICO, TIME, The Atlantic Monthly, ABC, NBC, and FOX News:
Adam Nagourney, Dan Balz, Chris Cillizza, John Fund, Maeve Reston, Mike Allen, Jonathan Martin, Jill Zuckman, Mark Halperin, Paul Bedard, Steve Dinan, Charlie Hurt, Marc Ambinder, Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg, Rich Lowry, Byron York, George Stephanopolis (sic), Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Carl Cameron, Brit Hume, Mark Preston, David Brody
Many on this list, such as Cillizza, Allen, Martin, Halperin, Stephanopoulis, Todd, Murray, and Cameron have expressed a disdain verging on mockery toward Palin. Halperin, of course, also allowed Schmidt to use and abuse him as a mouthpiece through which he would endlessly harass Palin (Halperin co-wrote Game Change, which was also turned into a TV movie). One can only wonder how much of their biases were formed when they were targeted by Schmidt's allies after the campaign.
The Republicans who often go on television who were specifically named in the memo are:
Kevin Madden, Alex Castellanos, Ron Bonjean, Barbara Comstock, Jim Dyke, Tim Griffin, John Feehrery (sic), Rich Galen, Ben Ginsburg, Amy Holmes, Leslie Sanchez, Andrea Tantaros, and Ken Mehlman
Many on this list have specifically taken jabs at Palin and conservatives generally and, as you can see on the list of attendees at the “Game Change” premiere in Washington, D.C., feel more at home among the members of the mainstream media than they do among conservatives. Unlike Palin supporters, who handed out Playbills that debunked much of “Game Change,” these beltway Republicans at the “Game Change” premiere probably did not mention the fact that much of the movie was false, because they have to scratch the backs of beltway creatures like Halperin and Heilemann so they can get theirs scratched by them in the future.
The “Schmidt Memo” also suggested that, at conferences which would discuss the 2008 election, where the types of Republicans and the mainstream media elite who go to "Game Change" premieres congregate, Team Schmidt would ensure their spin would be heard and be a permanent part of post-election bloodstream and narrative.
In April of 2009, Schmidt and Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe participated in a post-election forum at the University of Delaware, where Schmidt again repeated the talking points from the memo that he had supposedly not seen and admitted that he has "occasionally voted for a few Democratic Party candidates."
In the fall of 2009, Schmidt was a prominent participant at a conference in Washington, D.C., “The First Draft of History.” The conference was organized by The Atlantic and The Aspen Ideas Forum, which regularly attracts opinion makers in the mainstream media and the editors and producers who then amplify what becomes conventional wisdom. Schmidt was interviewed at the forum by CNN's John King and said that Palin would be "catastrophic" to the Republican Party should she be the Republican nominee in 2012:
I think that she has talents, but my honest view is that she would not be a winning candidate for the Republican Party in 2012, and in fact, were she to be the nominee, we would have a catastrophic election result.
Like clockwork, King, who then was the host of the influential Sunday show “State of the Union,” led a panel discussion
about Schmidt’s remarks the Sunday after the conference on his show. Schmidt also discussed Going Rogue
, which had not been published yet. The mainstream media did not make a fuss about him criticizing a book he had not read in the way they did about Team Palin criticizing “Game Change” before seeing it (Team Palin eventually got a leaked version of "Game Change," screened it, and stood by their original criticisms of the movie
Why is it significant that King interviewed Schmidt? In the memo, Schmidt's allies wanted to ensure that those who were friendly to Schmidt were on panels with him. And who could be friendlier than someone to whom Schmidt and Wallace leaked false information about Palin being a diva that started the 2008 blame game?
Gossip that Palin was a "diva" was first spread by King and his then-wife, CNN's Dana Bash, in 2008. In 2009, it was revealed that those involved in the McCain campaign suspected that Nicolle Wallace's husband, Mark, leaked the gossip to his friends King and/or Bash. None other than Bill Kristol wrote in an e-mail:
My very educated guess is mark wallace defnding [sic] his wife
Knows king well, gives her deniability, spent several weeks through debate with her, not there now
So King, who was one of the first to help Team Schmidt execute the "Blame Anyone But Schmidt" strategy, "objectively" moderated a discussion about election 2008, and he then helped amplify the conventional wisdom about Palin and the 2008 election through the platforms that he had at CNN.
Months later, at the start of 2010, CBS began hyping Game Change the novel with a "60 Minutes" feature. CBS interviewed Schmidt, but also interviewed Halperin and Heilemann. Halperin spoke about, of all things, Palin's mental state, while Heilemann spoke authoritatively about Palin's now-debunked lack of foreign policy experience. But CBS never asked Messrs. Halperin and Heilemann how they could speak so authoritatively, as if they were in the room with Palin during these so-called events.
In reality, Halperin and Heilemann were simply acting as mouthpieces for Schmidt and Wallace, but CBS let the "reporters" repeat the seediest pieces of gossip about Palin to lend them more credibility. If Schmidt had gone on camera and said what he most likely told Halperin and Heilemann, it would blow his cover as the Palin trasher-in-chief and make him sound like an incompetent mercenary hell-bent on ascribing blame to anyone but himself for the campaign.
But because the mainstream media hated Palin and wanted to take her down from the beginning, they were more than happy to collude with Schmidt to cement a conventional wisdom about Palin that they thought would permanently damage her.
And now, this conventional wisdom is parroted mindlessly by the mainstream media, as seen in this CNN piece in which Gloria Borger, a prominent on-air commentator, says things like, “This time around, it's clear what one rule will be: The vice presidential nominee needs to be qualified to be president.”
Borger also repeats the manufactured conventional wisdom that Palin was not ready to be president when she says, “Sure, Romney will want a running mate who balances his weaknesses with conservatives and maybe can lend a hand in a key state or two. But post-Palin, the vice presidential nominee needs to be one thing more than anything else: competent, prepared and ready to lead.”
Of course, one of Borger’s main sources in all of her pieces is none other than Schmidt.
And this fabricated narrative is taken as fact, as seen in this opinion piece by Karl Rove in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which he falsely wrote that McCain was leading Obama in the polls at the time he chose Palin. But actually, according to the “RealClearPolitics” average of polls on the day McCain chose Palin, McCain was losing to Obama nationally, 47.7 percent to 43.8. It was Palin’s selection and her subsequent speech at the Republican National Convention that put McCain’s campaign temporarily ahead of Obama’s.
What The Questions Not Asked By the Legacy Media Reveal About Them
And just like that, the conventional wisdom that Palin was a crazy hick and Obama's election was inevitable went into motion, even though it has all been proven to be a myth. And it was formed without these esteemed opinion makers asking any of these relevant questions, which any journalist who knows and follows politics would think to ask:
1. If McCain had no chance of winning the election, then what were his paid professionals paid so handsomely to do? Are these paid professionals not hired to make candidates better and help them with messaging and strategy?
2. If no Republican could have won in 2008, then why was the McCain campaign briefly ahead after Palin's convention speech?
3. If the financial crisis ended any chance McCain had of winning the election, wasn't his campaign's decision to go "all in" and suspend his campaign the reason that ended McCain's chance at becoming president? And wasn't Team Schmidt the architect of the "all-in" strategy?
Lastly, this episode also reveals some more truths about the Beltway media.
1. The mainstream media lazily let itself get played and spun. This should trouble many, especially those who were rightfully outraged that Obama did not get vetted in 2008.
2. If the mainstream media is not stupid, then it deliberately plays along with false narratives, knowing they are being spun, because reporters need scoops and access in the future from the permanent class of political operatives.
3. The Mainstream media and liberals see Palin as a threat and are more than glad to smear her with the help of useful idiots who call themselves Republicans--like Schmidt.
4. Journalists, the saying goes, are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But in today's age, journalists are more likely to comfort their comfortable friends in the paid professional community of political operatives and afflict the powerless who neither have the resources nor the platforms to defend themselves. And, more often than not, the afflicted are conservatives.
5. Too often, those who have conventional wisdom manufactured about them cannot fight back. And that is why McCain's paid professionals and the mainstream media thought they could target Palin and absolve Schmidt of any blame. Palin would go back to the hinterland and would not be heard from again, they thought. And conservatives, the conventional thinking went, would lose even more power and influence after the 2008 elections, even in a country in which a plurality has repeatedly identified themselves as conservative. But the mainstream media and those Republicans who have never understood conservatives underestimated Palin's appeal, the power of the forthcoming Tea Party movement, and the fierceness with which her supporters would defend her when they figured out this charade.
As Charles Hurt of the Washington Times wrote, “what people like Mr. Schmidt don’t understand is that the reason so many Americans fell in love with Sarah Palin is not because they hate Democrats. It’s because they hate Republicans. Specifically, Republicans like Steve Schmidt.”
Andrew Breitbart said that if Obama were to be properly vetted, the media that enabled and covered up for Obama had to be vetted as well. When Republicans and the mainstream media trash conservatives or praise liberals like Obama and seem to be reading from the same talking points, these Schmidt memos provide more evidence that they--knowingly or unknowingly--are doing just that.
Winston Churchill also said that “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” This is exactly what Schmidt--and his cronies in the mainstream media and GOP establishment--intend to do. Andrew Breitbart would have fiercely combated this pro-establishment whitewashing of history. Conservatives like Mark Levin are fighting it. And more conservatives should do so as well, if for no other reason than to ensure this does not happen to another conservative who dares to take on the establishment and the permanent political class.