It Happened To McCain

The New York Times writes the history of the McCain campaign

Although the election is, as I write, still more than a week away, The New York Times Magazine decided to get out ahead of history with a close look at how the McCain campaign got to where it is now and, presumably, where it’s going to be in a few days—which is, as reporter Robert Draper predicts, Loserville.

In Sunday’s cover story, “The Making (and Remaking) of McCain,” Draper traces the various reinventions of the candidate from “NARRATIVE 1: The Heroic Fighter vs. the Quitters” to “NARRATIVE 6: The Fighter (Again) vs. the Tax-and-Spend Liberal.” On one hand, the piece almost satisfies the curiosity for behind-the-scenes tidbits: Steve Schmidt smokes! So does Mark Salter! The choosing of Palin was a rushed, contrived affair with little time given to consider her policy bona fides.

But feeding the gossip mill doesn’t seem to have been the goal. Draper, I’m guessing, is trying to explain why McCain will lose on November 4, and his apologist explanation—that the campaign tried but failed to establish a successful storyline for the candidate— doesn’t ring true. Instead, the piece resonates with a passive tone, wherein McCain’s advisors and the senator himself are at the mercy of events beyond their control.

Draper describes the campaign’s attempt to recast McCain as a bipartisan leader, someone who often went against his own party:

Salter and Schmidt had hoped that the mainstream press would warm to this new narrative. But the matter of which candidate had shown more acts of bipartisan daring failed to become Topic A.

In fact, that version of McCain didn’t take hold in the campaign, but Draper doesn’t attempt to match the campaign’s story line against reality. Perhaps the reason why the idea didn’t get much traction is that Schmidt and company had a problem demonstrating the actual facts behind the rhetoric. Or perhaps those facts were simply lacking in the senator’s record.

Later, the piece recounts the campaign’s descent into ugly campaigning:

When his media team suggested running ads that highlighted Obama’s connection with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, McCain reminded them that he pledged months earlier not to exploit the matter, and John McCain was not about to go back on his word. In such moments, the man who renounced negative ads during the 2000 campaign because he wanted (as he told his aghast advisers back then) “to run a campaign my daughter can be proud of” has been thoroughly recognizable.

But that John McCain had lost.

In this telling and this verbiage, the McCain of 2000 becomes an example of collateral damage, an inevitable victim of a tough campaign.

This simply can’t be true. It is as if Draper adopts a doctrine of Determinism over Free Will. The campaign, Schmidt, McCain, and the rest of the staff are completely devoid of the agency necessary to run the kind of campaign that may have led to victory.

In the summer, after Obama’s successful world tour, the McCain camp rolled out its infamous “Celebrity” ad:

When Russia invaded the fledgling republic of Georgia on Aug. 8, McCain’s strategists saw an opportunity for another stark binary choice — albeit one that abruptly shifted the story line back to the international arena: combat-ready leader versus unready celebrity.

The execution of the new narrative left something to be desired, however.

Here again, Draper paints the campaign as a leaf caught in the breeze, blown this way and that by narratives gone astray.

Perhaps it’s possible that the headwinds of the Obama candidacy were too strong for McCain to fight. Certainly, it’s hard to argue with the passion he has ignited around the country and the world.

But, ultimately, the premise that it was the failure of the narratives and not the lack of appeal of the candidate’s positions, or his poor response to the economic crisis, seems to both too easily excuse the campaign’s missteps and, in a sense, cast the voting public as a bunch of gullible fools.

If McCain wins this November, the postmortem of the campaign is unlikely to include a lot of praise for successful narratives; instead McCain’s qualifications will get the credit. So why does Draper let the Schmidt and company get away with using narratives as excuses for a failed campaign? Such tactics as a whole belong in the realm of the campaign strategist, but Draper is a journalist and should resist that narrative—which, in this case, is just another word for spin.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.