Can America Afford a McCain First Term?

Daniel Burrell

Posted July 18, 2008 | 12:28 PM (EST)

One of the common Republican criticisms directed at a potential Obama presidency is that its first two years will be marked by instability, poor management, and inexperience. But if managing an enterprise as large and politically complex as a presidential campaign is any indication of how either of these candidates will perform day one in the White House, it is McCain’s campaign, not Obama’s that should be worrying American voters.

Since announcing his candidacy last April, McCain has been unable to get control of his organization. The campaign’s messaging, strategic planning, grassroots, and fundraising operations all have been mired in disarray. Most of the mess is attributable to the candidate’s inability to establish a clear chain of command at the top and to quell infighting among senior staff, a somewhat stunning revelation when considering McCain’s stature in the Party and past experiences as a presidential contender. But while the chaotic state of McCain headquarters has become a well worn subject over the past two weeks, with a litany of Republican elected officials and strategists questioning the candidate’s chances in November, as well as mainstream media figures such as Bill Kristol and Adam Nagourney writing pieces chronicling the myriad and ongoing staffing problems, few seem focused on the more substantive issue of what all of this means for a McCain first term if he is actually elected.

With only 110 days left in the election, there is no discernible answer as to what a McCain presidency would look like, who would be the key players organizationally, where the primary policy focus would be directed, and how he would avoid the mistakes of management and judgment that have thus far pervaded his campaign. In fact, if the past year of inner circle shakeups is any proxy at all for how a first term might be run under McCain leadership, it is a disquieting reality.

  • First, McCain Campaign Version 1.0 was run literally into the ground by July of 2007 by advisors John Weaver and Terry Nelson, who under McCain’s supervision mismanaged his finances so badly that they bankrupted the campaign. Overspending on offices, staff (Weaver hired his fiancée and her brother), polling, and consultants (Weaver increased his fees to $20,000 a month even as the campaign stumbled) forced the campaign to take out private loans, a matter now under FEC investigation, simply to stay afloat.
  • Then came Campaign Version 2.0 in August 2007, which continued on uninterrupted through June 2008 with McCain’s hiring of lobbyist Rick Davis and number two Charlie Black. Far from achieving the goal of correcting the earlier mistakes of the Weaver/Nelson era, Davis and Black instead exposed more deeply than ever McCain’s organizational ineptitude, including his unwillingness to completely banish or fire past advisors no matter how incompetent, his failure to define clear roles through established hierarchy, and his inability to provide a philosophical framework from which his campaign could launch a coherent attack on Obama. As Nagourney’s piece last week pointed out, early missteps by McCain were not met with decisive action, but rather by incorporating a “swirl of competing spheres of influence, clusters of friends, consultants and media advisers who all represented a matrix of clashing ambitions and festering feuds.”
  • Finally, Campaign Version 3.0 arrived in early July 2008, when McCain announced a third campaign shakeup that almost inconceivably fell exactly on the 1 year anniversary of his 2007 ousting of John Weaver. This latest “adjustment” appears to have firmly passed control from Rick Davis to Bush-Rove era veteran Steve Schmidt (incidentally in the process making McCain even more vulnerable to claims that his campaign is being cast in the mold of a Bush third term). But if McCain believes that the promotion of Schmidt will finally put to rest the problems of the past, he is likely to be disappointed again. His inner circle remains filled with people who have been demoted without losing their official titles, like Davis, who continues to occupy the title of campaign manager even as Steve Schmidt manages the campaign, a complicating fact that guarantees infighting will persist. Even more concerning is the revelation that McCain himself may still be unsettled with his inner circle even today, a point highlighted by Bill Kristol’s article implicating the lingering influence of former McCain senior aide Mike Murphy over McCain. With all of this it seems likely that McCain Campaign Version 4.0 or some hybrid thereof is not far off.

Contrast this against the Obama organization and the differences are stark. They remain focused, organized, and well managed. Notwithstanding some shuffling of his policy team earlier in the year, Obama has made no major changes to his inner circle since announcing his candidacy. Moreover, the chain of command is defined and clear. At the top of the campaign sits David Alexrod and David Plouffe, with the former focused on message and communications and the latter on operations, political, and grassroots. There is no question as to their ability to make decisions on behalf of the candidate. This structural coherence has allowed the campaign to largely avoid the political infighting between staff that so paralyzes McCain’s efforts. But perhaps even more impressive has been Obama’s steady hand at the helm. He has maneuvered and managed his unlikely campaign through difficult waters in the primaries, defeating the Clintons, and so far effectively defending against the early attacks of McCain leading into the general. He also has adeptly unified the two houses of the campaign effort, the presidential campaign and the DNC, typically a messy business and a logistical nightmare. This organizational leadership augurs well for Obama’s ability to execute a seamless convention later this Summer and enter the general with a strong party infrastructure behind him. Even more important is what it says about how he might manage his first few years in the White House if elected. With the Fall approaching and the campaigning reaching its peak, McCain’s current political team will no doubt ratchet up the charges of inexperience and youth against Obama. But these cries will likely fall on deaf ears if Obama continues to deliver a consistent message and organize effectively through November. Who knows, though, maybe McCain Campaign Version 4.0 has something better up their sleeves that we haven’t yet seen.

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