I just finished reading Newsweek’s behind-the-scenes look at the presidential campaign.
It is an astonishingly rich and detailed piece of reporting, filled with surprising stories and facts, and carrying the ring of truth.
While anyone who was ever been in the papers knows that journalists will never get the story exactly right, it seems to me that the reporters did their best to capture the essence of the story, and to treat all the participants fairly and with respect. For example, Steve Schmidt, often cast as the Rove-ian heavy, comes off as surprisingly sympathetic.
(Ironically, the only person who doesn’t get the sympathetic treatment is Sarah Palin…whether this is accurate, liberal media bias (TM), or simply because she wasn’t close enough to the insiders dishing the dirt, I can’t say)
If you’re a campaign junkie, I strongly recommend you read the whole thing. Here are the high-level impressions and notes that I carried away:
1) Barack Obama is unbelievably calm and self-assured. Campaigns really do take their tone from the top, and Obama’s cool, intellectual style trickled down to all the members of his staff. Even during the toughest times, he wasn’t a yeller or screamer.
A note to all you sci-fi nerds out there–when I read that Obama rarely ate on the campaign trail, and would order food “to go” at campaign stops that reporters were convinced he’d never eat, all I could think of was “Stephen Byerly.” I for one welcome our robot overlords.
2) Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain ran incompetent campaigns, but they were incompetent in different ways.
Hillary’s campaign was a microcosm of the internecine infighting of the Clinton White House, leading to this memorable and poignant line:
“Crisis, chaos, deceit and subterfuge. After eight years in the Clinton White House, it was all familiar to Hillary—a world she had bravely struggled in but not against; it was the only world she really knew.”
John McCain’s campaign also suffered as a results of its candidate’s failings…which were the obverse of his strengths. Impulsive, impatient, and combative, the McCain campaign’s constant machinations and attacks kept breaking on the cool impassiveness of the Obama campaign. It didn’t help that despite his dogged tenacity and endless energy, McCain simply didn’t enjoy organization or preparation, and was apt to depart from his own chosen strategy, seemingly on a whim.
The biggest mistake of both campaigns was to underestimate the mettle of their opponent. Hillary honestly believed that Obama couldn’t win the election because of his race, and that the superdelegates would break her way. McCain couldn’t stand Obama because of a perceived lack of “honor” (in McCain’s defense, Obama and his campaign showed a Chicago-style ruthlessness, including the decision to reject public financing) and never took him seriously enough:
“McCain’s essential world view, bred into him by his Navy-admiral father and grandfather, is that of a warrior. In his bestsellers, McCain made clear that the personal quality he extols above all others—even courage—is honor. Over time, egged on by his subordinates, he came to believe that Obama was a nice enough young man, but somehow lacking in this most noble of warrior virtues.”
3) Obama won in part because his campaign didn’t even bother to pay lip service to the traditional campaigning methods of the Democratic Party. After all, this is the same political machine that managed to lose 7 of the past 10 presidential elections.
In 2004, John Kerry set aside significant resources to have specific programs for blacks, gays, Native Americans, the disabled, etc. Obama’s campaign started to assign a single liason to each group (already a major scale-back) and ultimately shitcanned the whole effort, dispersing those staffers to focus on get out the vote efforts.
A few additional tidbits:
- Hillary Clinton wasted a boatload of money on chartering her own G4 jet; rather than staying in motels in rural Iowa, she would stay in a suite in Des Moines, then jet out for her campaign stops
- One of the reasons Democratic donors were reluctant to give more to the Clinton campaign was the fear that Hillary wouldn’t be able to control Bill (an accurate fear, as it turned out)
- Hillary Clinton was curiously reluctant to run for president; she liked her life and her accomplishments in the Senate
- Hillary Clinton lives with her mother; Bill is only an occasional visitor (I’m sure there’s a book to be written about that fact alone)
- Obama asked his staff to uncover and review every one of Reverend Wright’s speeches; this may have been the one major way that they failed him. He was blindsided by the “God Damn America” speech.
- When the rest of his staff didn’t know what to do, Obama made the decision to make a major speech on race in Philadelphia, and wrote the speech almost entirely by himself. He regularly pulled all nighters to write his important speeches.
- Steve Schmidt is a devoted family man who has memorized all the songs to Disney’s “Enchanted” so that he can sing them with his daughter. (Side note: Enchanted is an awesome movie. I love the sequence where Giselle and her animal helpers (rats, pigeons, cockroaches, and flies) clean up Patrick Dempsey’s apartment.)
- Ted Kennedy actually had a major beef with Obama over his failure to keep his end of a Senate bargain. When a colleague asked Teddy why he had endorsed Obama, he simply replied, “Caroline.”
- When BarackObama.com directed people to the Red Cross web site to donate in advance of Hurricane Gustav, the traffic surge brought down the site within 15 minutes…something that didn’t happen during 9/11 or Katrina.
- When he first got the news that McCain had picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, Joe Biden asked, “Who’s Palin?”
- Even though the press attacked the McCain campaign for being negative, McCain and his team actually vetoed a bunch of particularly vile attacks:
“McCain had set firm boundaries: no Jeremiah Wright; no attacking Michelle Obama; no attacking Obama for not serving in the military. McCain balked at an ad using images of children that suggested that Obama might not protect them from terrorism; Schmidt vetoed ads suggesting that Obama was soft on crime (no Willie Hortons); and before word even got to McCain, Schmidt and Salter scuttled a “celebrity” ad of Obama dancing with talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres (the sight of a black man dancing with a lesbian was deemed too provocative).”
After reading this article, I had a better sense of the candidates than ever before. My overwhelming feeling was that, policy considerations aside, the right man won. I share few of Barack Obama’s domestic policy beliefs, but if he shows the same discipline, understanding, and competence in the White House that he did on the campaign trail, he might have a chance of living up to the sky-high expectations of his supporters.