POLITICS JULY 31, 2008
Sergeant Schmidt. The Artillery Shell. The Bullet.
Even in the hyper-competitive world of political media strategists--a line of work that tends to reward the studied deployment of affectation and outsized personality--Steve Schmidt, the tough-talking, shaven-headed, 37-year old former high school tight end from North Plainfield, New Jersey, who recently emerged from a scrum among John McCain's inner circle to become the head of day-to-day operations, arrived on the national stage trailing more colorful nicknames than most.
"He figured out pretty quickly that [a martial] reputation would work to his professional benefit," Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director in 2000, recently told me. "When he came on to the Schwarzenegger [2006 gubernatorial] campaign, I told his junior staffers: If you show up late to a meeting, Steve will waterboard you."
Schmidt's most recent promotion was announced on July 2. Campaign manager Rick Davis's duties were scaled back to fundraising, searching for a v.p., and making preparations for the national convention, while Schmidt was dispatched to the campaign's Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, where he assumed "full operational control." In Republican circles it was hailed as a move in the right direction; the question was whether it had come too late.
The campaign clearly needed a take-no-shit disciplinarian to whip the operation--and the message--into shape after it failed to capitalize on a four-month head start in the general election. And in the news accounts that followed the switch, the relatively unknown Schmidt was defined mostly by his nicknames: Sergeant Schmidt, the Artillery Shell, the Bullet. Still, none of these stuck quite as firmly--or have raised more red flags among Democrats--as the epithet that now precedes his name more than any other: "Rove protégé."
The day after Schmidt's promotion, The New York Times reported that he had "worked closely with Rove" in the White House, where he served as deputy assistant to the president and counselor to the vice president after the '04 election, and cited "associates" saying a McCain victory in November would burnish Rove's legacy. Schmidt was also a sometime attendee of Rove's exclusive "breakfast club," where much of the communications strategy for Bush's re-election campaign was plotted out. And it was Rove who nicknamed him the Bullet.
Being labeled a Rove protégé summons all kinds of associations in the minds of American voters--chief among them, a fundamentally divisive political strategy geared toward mobilizing the base in the service of a socially conservative agenda. But that's not Schmidt. Mark McKinnon, the former Bush adman who opted to leave the McCain campaign rather than produce ads attacking Obama, calls Rove "a pure party guy. … He uniquely understands the history and physics of the Republican Party," whereas Schmidt is "a pure message machine. He came up as a professional through the press side of the business." John Weaver, a former top adviser to McCain, was less circumspect, "Steve's no more a Karl Rove protégé than I run the Johnson Space Center."
Schmidt has certainly indulged in lowly Rove-like tactics over the years. Like the time, back in 1996, when he sent out 60,000 "sex surveys" that attempted to portray then-Congressman Tim Roemer as someone who was using health surveys to pry into the sex lives of adolescents. Schmidt has already proved in this campaign that he's not above that kind of behavior. But he also has a parallel history of stressing decidedly moderate positions, and eschewing the dictates of Rove's permanent conservative majority pipe dream. If his sudden ascendancy proves anything, it is that the Republican Party's fortunes have changed so dramatically that it can no longer afford to have grand ideologues run its campaigns, but must instead turn to scrappier tacticians like Schmidt.
"We were Clinton-philes," says Nicolle Wallace, the former White House communications director who hired Schmidt to run rapid response for the Bush-Cheney campaign in '04. "On the first day I had that job, I played The War Room. We were huge fans of what [the Clinton team] did in '92, and we specifically tried to emulate and improve upon it in 2004." Wallace credits James Carville--known to his troops at the time as the "field marshal"--along with Paul Begala and George Stephanopoulos with "creating this whole movement of rapid response. They never complained about their coverage; they were never the victim of it. And I think that was a hallmark of '04--we drove the debate, and we were on the offense."
Schmidt was tasked with carrying out a directive posted to Wallace's office door--"It's the Hypocrisy, Stupid"--that carried a decidedly more negative bent than the famous Carville adage. And when Kerry slipped--as when he tortuously explained that he "actually did vote for the $87 billion before [he] voted against it"--Schmidt immediately blasted out hundreds of e-mail alerts to surrogates, the press, and also McKinnon, who would shape the talking point into a devastating television ad.
After the 2004 election, in addition to serving as Dick Cheney's director of communications, Schmidt shepherded Justices Roberts and Alito through their confirmation hearings (but he was not involved, as Schmidt watchers are quick to point out, in Harriet Miers' abortive bid). He left the White House to work at the lobbying and communications firm Mercury Public Affairs in northern California, but, in January 2006, Schmidt was persuaded by Maria Shriver to run her battered husband's re-election campaign.
When Schmidt came on, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was a chastened man. Two months earlier, he had tried to ram through a package of ballot initiatives that California voters summarily rejected, his approval ratings were hovering in the 30s, and his campaign operation was severely underfunded. But working alongside Shriver and Susan Kennedy--the Governor's Democratic chief of staff--Schmidt was instrumental in guiding the governor's landslide victory during a particularly bad election cycle for Republicans. And he was able to do it, in no small part, by siphoning off large swaths of moderates and Democrats. Schmidt set up a mini-war room that operated from 4 a.m. to midnight pushing a centrist message on issues like immigration, clean energy, and the minimum wage. And he gave the "Governator" an image overhaul to match the platform. "No more driving around in the Hummer," he told a reporter at the time. "No more … running around and explosions and fireworks."
Schmidt counts the campaign as one of the highlights of his career, and one reason might be that his personal politics, as colleagues suggest, overlap with Schwarzenegger's. Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for the California governor's re-election campaign, told me that Schmidt isn't always "comfortable with the whole social conservative aspect of the party. He's a big patriot and has a big respect for the military--his wife was a navy nurse--but being judgmental and moralistic, that's just not his cup of tea." Dowd recalls having long conversations with Schmidt, whose sister is gay, over cigars in Schmidt's backyard "about civil unions and gay marriage, where he wasn't necessarily in lockstep with the Republican Party."
Weaver describes Schmidt as "hardly a right-wing reactionary guy" and counts him among a corps of Republican operatives in their late 30s and early 40s--most of whom have served in the Bush White House--who hope to chart a less divisive course for the party in the coming years. Still, there's been no indication that Schmidt, whom Mark McKinnon swears is a "total marshmallow … [and] a really sweet guy," struggles with separating his personal politics from the task at hand.
Back in '04, for instance, Schmidt told an L.A. Times reporter that "every American, including the president ... believes John Kerry's service in Vietnam was admirable. But what's most striking is that in order to talk about John Kerry's accomplishments, they've had to go back for 35 years." Four years later, when Wesley Clark questioned the relevance of McCain's wartime service in strikingly similar terms, Schmidt wasted no time hammering him for it.
Hypocritical? Sure. But it isn't Steve Schmidt's job to be consistent from one election year to the next. And in late 2006, as Republicans who'd taken note of the work he'd done on Schwarzenegger's campaign were gearing up for the '08 election, Schmidt pretty much had his pick.
"Romney sent him an antique chair with a note that said something like, 'Hope to have you sitting at the head table,'" Weaver recalled. Giuliani was also pursuing him, but "we got Steve, and Steve got to keep the chair."
When Schmidt signed on with McCain in December 2006, the campaign was flush with money, and the polls had him beating Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton by double digits. Weaver said Schmidt was attracted to McCain's "iconoclasm" and "robust foreign policy." Schmidt had also been lured to the campaign by a number of close friends, including his partners at Mercury Public Affairs: Brian Jones (a former Bush operative who was brought on as McCain's communications director and Schmidt's best friend since he was eight years old) and Terry Nelson (Bush's political director in '04 and a friend of Schmidt's since 1996).
So, when Nelson quit as campaign manager last July--quickly followed out the door by Weaver, Jones, and a number of others with whom he'd developed close relationships over the years--Schmidt wasn't sure what he should do next. The campaign was broke and trailing badly, and Schmidt had been working for free.
"His intention was just to take calls from the senator and give him whatever advice that he asked for," Weaver recalls. "But he had grown fond of John and vice versa, and after we left, there was a vacuum. … Instead of talking to me 20 times a day, [McCain] was talking to Steve 20 times a day. Like any combatant, he got called back to duty. And that's how it evolved into what it is today."
"I describe the Bush operation as being kind of like the British Royal Navy," McKinnon told me. "And the McCain campaign is sort of like Pirates of the Caribbean.
"Steve's bringing a little bit of discipline from the Royal Navy operation."
But it takes more than one man to right a ship--and Schmidt is still struggling to control the campaign and its famously unmanageable candidate. Keeping everyone on message, as Schnur points out, is "the kind of thing that takes a little time to institutionalize." Last week, as the junior senator from Illinois was winning plaudits overseas, McCain was reduced to volleying shots at his opponent from a town-hall style meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire, and a supermarket aisle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Temple of Hercules in Amman it was not.
"Machiavelli and Sun Tzu working in tandem," Schnur says, "couldn't have put together a week for John McCain that would have rivaled the favorable coverage that Obama's getting from his foreign tour." Schmidt at least succeeded in occasionally steering the conversation to coverage about the coverage--in one instance, by posting a video on the campaign's website called "Obama Love" that ended up getting a good amount of chuckling press. It's tactics like these that--consciously or not--get a Katie Couric to self-deprecatingly remark on the media blitz in which she's implicated, as an "Obamathon."
Just as he did within days of the campaign's first implosion last summer--when he came up with the then-counterintuitive and ultimately revitalizing idea of sending McCain out on surge-supporting "No Surrender Tour"--Schmidt has once again placed his candidate in town hall-style settings. And under Schmidt's direction the overall message--"Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign"--has been much more aggressive, for better or for worse.
McCain has managed to remain within five points of Obama's lead, and there's reportedly a debate occurring within the campaign about how much more negative the message should get. Though it should be of little consolation to Democrats, whatever they choose will have more to do with desperation than grand dreams of ideological realignment. Schmidt may not think exactly like Rove, his supposed mentor, but it will be instructive to see if he'll feel overwhelming pressure to act like him.
Laurence Lowe is a researcher-reporter at GQ and a senior editor at Triple Canopy. His work has also appeared in The New York Times and n+1.