McCain's Staff Infection

Posted: Jul 11, 2007 8:14 AM

(Or is it staff defection?)

The more I think about it, the more I agree with Patrick Ruffini's comment yesterday, in which he said of McCain: "... he is a terrible candidate with a great staff."

Frankly, that's the reason I never believed McCain would fall this fast.  Because, despite his obvious problems, I knew he had some of the most talented staff in the business, and that still counts for a lot when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts stuff like identifying and turning out voters. 

But the candidate is King, and that's the lesson that political operatives, pundits, and political insiders must keep reminding themselves.  Having a great staff is important, but they only affect things at the margins.  Operatives aren't magicians.  There are tricks of the trade they can employ to make a candidate look a little better than he is, but this is also contingent on having the candidate actually do what you tell him to do. 

Just as football coaches and GMs can't score touchdowns, campaign managers and advisors don't win elections.  At the end of the day, it comes down to the players executing the plays.

Nobody votes for a campaign manager, they vote for a candidate.  And to paraphrase Yogi Berra, "If nobody wants to come to a ballgame, there's nothing you can do to stop them."  Or, in political terms: If people simply don't like your candidate, the best spin-meisters in the world will have a hard time changing that.

I recently attended a private event in which McCain and Romney both were guest speakers. At one point, someone in the audience threw John McCain a softball, which I think illustrates McCain's problem. The meeting was off-the-record, so I'm just paraphrasing here, but it went something like this:

Q: Senator McCain, thank you for your service to our country. A lot of people don't know that you're the most pro-life candidate running. They don't know that you've got the best record on the issue ...

A: Thank you, and yes, unlike some, I have always supported the right to life. But you should also know that -- and you may disagree with me here -- but that I support stem cell research, and ...

Now, why in the world would you go out of your way to ignore an issue in which you agree with your audience, and then focus on a divisive issue?  It makes no sense at all, and it's certainly not something that any advisor worth his salt would have recommended.  It's sure as heck not "staying on message."  And you can be sure Romney wouldn't have made this mistake.

*** Update - 9:00: WaPost reports: "Another McCain Staffer Departs - Mary Kate Johnson, the finance director for Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, has resigned -- joining a stampede of senior staff on Tuesday."

There are so many political maxims they are breaking that it's almost a perfect object lesson in what not to do.  In this case, they should have gotten all the bad news out at once.  As a friend emailed me: "Why the constant bleeding?"  He adds: "I mean, just by watching the movie Office Space you should know these. Fire everyone at the end of the week and all at once."