The Real Game Change : Palinism's Rise, Moderate Republicanism's Eclipse

The term "game change," like so many sports-oriented terms in politics, is decidedly over-used. But the events depicted in the Game Change film really do constitute just that, though not in the way that my friend Steve Schmidt, the top John McCain advisor who utters the phrase in the film and with whom I communicated throughout the period of the film, intended it.

The pick of Sarah Palin was intended to be a dynamic game changer in McCain's 2008 race against Barack Obama. But it proved to be a different sort of game change. It was the harbinger of a virulent rightward move in Republican politics as we see in today's presidential primaries, and the further devolution of the media culture into hysteria and hyper-partisanship. And it showed just what going for the win, the sine qua non of consultant culture, can end up meaning.

Now that Game Change has emerged as one of HBO's biggest movies ever, in a steady rotation on the cable network, and the film itself has yielded widespread acclaim outside of the Palinista camp, it's useful to pull back and look at the bigger import of the events the film depicts and the background against which they played out.

The trailer for the HBO movie Game Change.

The move is terrific, cunningly cast, which is key in this sort of picture. Julianne Moore is dimensional and outstanding as Sarah Palin; Ed Harris makes for a mostly noble John McCain (as he did for another iconic American aviator, John Glenn in The Right Stuff); and Woody Harrelson is excellent as Steve Schmidt, who is actually the key character in the film.

I came to know Schmidt well in 2006 when he ran Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election campaign as governor of California and communicated regularly with him throughout his time in John McCain's campaign, not least around the Sarah Palin pick, which of course he championed. To his present chagrin, as he's made abundantly clear.

In fact, the very first story on my New West Notes blog in January 2006 broke the news that Schmidt was coming aboard as Schwarzenegger's campaign manager.

Schwarzenegger was in deep trouble after his 2005 special election agenda of more conservative reform initiatives came up decidedly short. Many Democrats figured he would be easy pickings if he even bothered to run for re-election.

But Schwarzenegger, with whom I was friendly well before he ran for governor in the dramatic 2003 California recall but with whom my communication became frayed during his 2005 special election adventure, determined to pull back from the abyss to which most of his team had helped lead him and re-tool his operation. As I also reported not long before Schmidt's arrival, he brought a well-known Democratic operative, Susan Kennedy, on board as his new chief of staff.

I wrote that Schmidt was being brought on board as "a right-wing hatchet man" to balance Susan Kennedy, a pro-choice leader and lesbian married on Maui whose appointment enraged California's far right.

Schwarzenegger's then new communications director, Adam Mendelsohn, now Schwarzenegger's longtime political advisor (whom I'd gotten to know several years earlier when he was a congressional district director and friend of a girlfriend), called and told me I had it wrong, that Schmidt was a reasonable and moderate pragmatist, as well as one of his best friends.

Early in our first meeting, I wasn't so sure about that.

After about 30 seconds, I realized that Schmidt was giving me no response to anything I said. The former high school tight end, dubbed by Karl Rove as the "Bullet" for his imposing shaven-headed mien, simply stared impassively at me as I spoke, offering only the briefest, monotonal responses. I decided to ignore the potentially intimidating modus operandi and act as though I were getting normal responses to what I was saying.

After 10 minutes of this, I was getting normal responses from Schmidt. Thoughtful, amusing even, in a dry sort of way. His earlier act, as I'd suspected, had been an intimidation technique to put me on the spot and see how this character who knew and sometimes criticized his new boss and had called him a "right-wing hatchet man" would react.

Of course, I'd had some reason to think of Schmidt as a hatchet man. After he ran the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign war room, Newsweek did its look-back-at-the-campaign issue and described him walking through the office chanting "Kill, kill, kill." Which Schmidt insisted to me he never said.

In any event, he didn't march around Arnold HQ singing Viking songs. Although many on the staff found his look intimidating at first, he quickly became a popular figure, known for pep talks and strolls around the office offering encouragement. Staffers gravitated to him after hours, which is always a tell in any political operation. I came to have many long talks with Schmidt about politics. He was thoughtful and realistic about the Republican Party's problems, as well as festering geopolitical issues, proving good in conversation at coming up with lines not unlike the ones we see in the movie, which is why he does well as an MSNBC analyst.

Sarah Palin, on the biggest night of her life, wowing the Republican National Convention crowd and a nation of pundits.

It turned out that, while being something of a protege of Karl Rove in Bushworld, Schmidt was actually recruited into Schwarzworld in large measure by the person who introduced the rather touchy-feely phrase "We are the ones we've been waiting for" into the Obama Nation, then California First Lady Maria Shriver, who had undertaken a search for some of the best national Republican talent to balance a few Democrats in Schwarzenegger's centrist resurgence. Also part of the picture as a top advisor was former Bush chief strategist Matthew Dowd, who not long after had a major departure from Bushworld, as Huffington Post readers have noticed.

While no right-wing hatchet man, as I'd inaccurately reported, and no bully, as Palinistas -- who complain that the meanie Schmidt wanted their heroine to actually, you know, learn something -- would have it, he was also no closet liberal. In fact, he came to California fresh from a lengthy stint as counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Prior to that, he ran the war room for the 2004 Bush/Cheney campaign. As part of his work for the fascinating Dark Lord of the Sith, Schmidt went to Baghdad to upgrade the American PR operation in Iraq and quarterbacked the confirmations of two conservative Supreme Court justices.

But in California, Schmidt pushed hard for Schwarzenegger's $50 billion infrastructure program (which was scaled back somewhat before passing the legislature and winning at the polls in November 2006), sitting in on meetings with Republican legislators insisting on their vote. He advised Schwarzenegger to sign AB 32, the state's landmark climate change program, when some advising him urged against it saying, incorrectly, that it was too inflexible. And in 2008, he urged Schwarzenegger to oppose Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban.

Schwarzenegger, who looked dead in the water in December 2005, swept to a 17-point landslide win in November 2006 in what was otherwise a big year for Democrats. He offered fulsome praise for Schmidt from the stage and later privately at his festive Beverly Hilton victory party.

For a political operative with this sort of smashing success, and one who knew how to appeal to the center to win general elections, a return to presidential politics, this time at the highest levels, was in the cards for Schmidt. Rudy Giuliani, buoyed by his residual 9/11 fame as "America's mayor," sat atop the polls, but John McCain was Schmidt's choice.

While he continued to advise Schwarzenegger, Schmidt joined McCain's campaign as a senior strategist and Mercury Public Affairs as a senior partner. Though Giuliani led in the polls, there was a widespread sense that McCain was the true frontrunner. But McCain, the former hell-raising naval aviator (never call them pilots) isn't comfortable in establishmentarian mode and the campaign proceeded to implode.

After the campaign's implosion -- caused in part by McCain's championing of immigration reform with Ted Kennedy -- Schmidt worked as a volunteer advisor and operative for McCain, frequently traveling with the candidate as he walked the comeback trail.

I remember telling Schmidt over lunch during this period, being somewhat ironic, that McCain needed to act after the fashion of Chairman Mao, who said during the Chinese Revolution: "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." Joking aside, McCain was more comfortable as an insurgent than the establishment favorite, and -- with Schmidt traveling with him to give him instant feedback on his remarks -- revived his candidacy with a smashing win in the New Hampshire primary.

It was only four years ago now, but it seems like another world.

By this point in 2008, McCain had long since clearly locked up the Republican presidential nomination. He did it by defeating the leading right-wing candidate, one Willard "Mitt" Romney, who today is a supposed relative moderate though if anything his positions are more conservative. Ever the chameleon, Romney ran in 2008 as a social conservative, after running for the U.S. Senate and governor of Massachusetts as a social liberal.

In the primaries McCain ran against the Talk Radio Right, whose candidate was not the genial longtime conservative Mike Huckabee but Romney. The, er, "moderate" (read: perpetual chameleon).

McCain clinched the nomination with primary victories over Romney in California (aided greatly by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and, a week later, in Florida (with current non-person but then popular moderate Governor Charlie Crist as his key backer).

McCain's big endorsement event with Schwarzenegger, which I broke on my blog, was a Long Beach affair promoting renewable energy and the jobs and industry to be had from green technology. With the Republicans all denying climate change, such an event would be unthinkable today.

But for all the dramatic primary success McCain enjoyed, he had real problems in the general election. Bush and Cheney were highly unpopular, the country was tired of the wars, and, though many were still denying it. the economy was already in what proved to be the worst recession since the Great Depression. McCain could campaign to an honorable defeat, or he could change things up.

John McCain's uplifting first TV ad under new campaign director Steve Schmidt.

In July 2008, as I discussed here on the Huffington Post, Schmidt took over as campaign director, with Rick Davis, who championed the Palin pick not long after, on as campaign manager. More change was to come.

McCain, of course, emerged from a very different sort of Republicanism than the harsh hyper-partisanship that Sarah Palin symbolizes. I met him several times before he ran for president in 2000, including at a book party at Arianna Huffington's home in Los Angeles celebrating McCain's memoir Faith of My Fathers. I was very pleased to have a personally inscribed copy of the book, which McCain produced with co-writer and longtime advisor Mark Salter, on my coffee table for quite awhile after that.

I was for McCain when he ran for president in 2000, part of Veterans for McCain, and appeared on a number of radio shows talking him up. Would I have voted for him against Al Gore? In the end, no would be a good guess. He's decidedly more conservative than I am, and much more generally disposed to military interventions, as we've seen quite a bit of late. But he was for political reform and I considered him an American hero and a great part of a needed debate.

After his 2000 Republican primary bid came up short against George W. Bush's nasty campaign, McCain took part in the Shadow Conventions, presenting alternative issues opposite the major party conventions, which Arianna spearheaded and for which I served as senior advisor.

McCain keynoted our event shadowing the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, while my old friend and boss Gary Hart (who was a groomsman in McCain's 1981 wedding to Cindy Helmsley) keynoted the event shadowing the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Not long after that, I met with another figure who participated in the Shadow Conventions, Ralph Nader, to discuss helping his third party presidential bid. He insisted that there was no way that his candidacy would help elect George W. Bush, as Al Gore was sure to win. I didn't think that was so.

As the Bush years went on, McCain proved again to be the sort of Republican focused on governance, finding ways to work across the aisle with Democrats while still promoting his own views.

Just as I was thrilled by his nomination in 2008, I was also thrilled by Obama's nomination. The two, in my view, represented the best of the two parties. They could hold a great contest, and whomever won could join with the other to help a damaged nation move forward into a complex and challenging future.

That proved to be a decidedly Pollyanna-ish view.

It's tempting to simply blame McCain and the Republicans for the increasingly ugly campaign that ensued. But it's important to remember that it was in Obama's hands to alter that outcome. Not that he ran a dishonorable campaign at all.

But he did refuse the joint town hall appearances and debates that McCain offered repeatedly. Had those occurred, much of the ugliness would have been avoided. It's hard to demonize someone who is showing up for hours on end, side by side with your party's own candidate, not infrequently agreeing with him on goals if not on methods.

But town halls were McCain's forte, just as the platform speech was Obama's, and Obama's consultants were loathe to place their candidate in a setting he still hadn't mastered against a grand master of the venue. And consultants like control almost as much as they like winning.

After Schmidt took over day to day command of the campaign, McCain became much more competitive with Obama, with a series of jabs that moved the Arizona senator well within striking distance. But the stunts didn't alter the underlying dynamics, which greatly favored Obama, though much of the media ate them up.

McCain, long a media star as arguably the country's most famous Vietnam War hero-turned-maverick Republican politician, had been supplanted as a cultural sensation by Obama. That didn't go down at all well in the McCain camp.

McCainiacs derisively referred to Obama as "The One," in reference to the savior Neo in The Matrix films.

McCain had been the star, the famed maverick. Now he was being displaced by a man of relatively little accomplishment and experience, a phenomenon which they preferred to attribute to celebrity culture taking over presidential politics.

Behind the scenes New West Notes video of then Senator Barack Obama at the 2007 California Democratic Party convention in San Diego.

But that was a misreading of Obama's appeal, which ran much deeper than mere celebrity. Obama was more a figure from the future than a figure from the tabloids, a symbol of what America could be moving beyond its racial and ideological divides. (Nothwithstanding "President David Palmer" on 24, I hadn't expected to see a black president anytime soon, if ever.)

And Obama, inexperienced though he was for presidential politics, was a very smart, gifted, and knowledgeable fellow with an uncanny sense of cool. I had thought myself that he might only be a celebrity type with a great oratorical gift. But after I scouted him in early 2007 at appearances in several cities, I was sold on him as the future of the Democratic Party.

Schmidt and his colleagues determined to take down Obama a peg or three with a derisive TV spot proclaiming "He's the biggest celebrity in the world."

But, emotionally satisfying as that may have been, it did not suffice. So, as they looked at and rejected the conventional and even relatively unconventional options for vice president, they determined to create a celebrity to compete with Obama's celebrity.

This was to be a "game changing" choice for vice president, as the Schmidt character puts it in the movie, because they couldn't win with one of the boring white guys. And the party's base would have gone nuts with McCain's conservative Democrat pal Joe Lieberman on the ticket. Not that picking Lieberman would have won the election, either.

"He's the biggest celebrity in the world," this derisive McCain ad says of Barack Obama.

I was very underwhelmed by Palin's political potential from the very beginning, as I made clear here on the Huffington Post within a few hours of her shocking pick.

And I was shocked. I knew who Palin was and had been convinced that McCain would never pick her. It would be too reckless in terms of governance. With people living longer, McCain's age never bothered me. What bothered me was that, unlike, say, my old friend Jerry Brown -- back as California's governor at twice the age he was when first elected -- McCain spent a half-dozen years in the Hanoi Hilton. The White House is an incredible pressure cooker and the next president would face massive crises that would threaten anyone's health.

Schmidt says now that "The ambition to win superseded judgment." Then it was the only time in which I exploded in anger at Schmidt for his tactics in the campaign.

I had looked at all the potential running mates including Palin -- reading articles about her in the Alaska press and viewing an hour or two of footage of her -- and years earlier had traveled through Wasilla, the tiny town where she ran up the bulk of her "experience" in government, which would be a one-horse town if it had a horse. Palin struck me as someone with a certain facile charm but no depth whatsoever.

She knew nothing. And she lacked the intelligence to overcome her ignorance in any timely fashion. Timely as in anytime in McCain's first term. But, though her own politics, if any, seemed very indistinct, she had made a point of charming prominent right-wing ideologues who enjoyed filling the emptiness in her head with their notions, as was clear from her jumbled regurgitation in an interview with CNBC's Larry Kudlow.

Right after Palin delivered her big convention speech, which so many found so stunning, I had a very different view here on the Huffington Post in "Que Sera, Sarah": "I think in the end Palin is a sideshow, a base play too problematic and extreme to appeal to independents and moderates, a tyro whose politics actually undercuts the positioning John McCain needs to win the election."

That turned out to be the case. But getting there proved very toxic, a toxicity that continues to this day.

The pick of Palin, and how she chose to respond to her elevation not by learning things but by defaulting to an easy far right populism, mainstreamed the crazy. Palin, as I wrote here on the Huffington Post in October 2008, reacted to her inability to explain the two Koreas, the Federal Reserve, or who was behind 9/11 by whipping up hysteria about Barack Obama as an elitist other, a dangerous "Manchurian Candidate," though she herself didn't use the term, out to undermine and bring down America from within.

So it was fitting that McCain ended one of the final weeks of his campaign confronting an angry supporter at one of his town halls who sputtered that Obama "is ... an Arab!" McCain, perhaps a bit shaken, assured her that Obama really is an American. But this is the sort of fire that burns everyone.

The whole thing is very addled, beginning with the "Manchurian candidate" concept itself, obviously ginned up by people who don't know either the Frank Sinatra movie (directed by Robert F. Kennedy's great friend John Frankenheimer) or the Richard Condon novel it's based on.

Because the Manchurian Candidate is really a former prisoner of war programmed by American's enemies during his captivity to bring them to power. As part of a Communist plot to assassinate the presidential front-runner and catapult a Joe McCarthy-like archconservative -- who is really part of the Communist plot -- into the White House.

Made with the encouragement of President John F. Kennedy, who was all too aware of the dangers of the paranoid style in American politics in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate is actually a darkly satirical view of far right politics in America.

By the Friday before the election, it was clear that Obama would win and that the experiment had backfired. I found myself in Columbus, Ohio, where Schwarzenegger has for years done a pre-election event with the Republican presidential candidate in the city that hosts his annual Arnold Sports Festival, which began as a bodybuilding competition and is now the nation's biggest multi-sport event.

As Schwarzenegger made his only general election appearance with the candidate he backed in the primaries, Sarah Palin was nowhere in sight. Nor was Joe the Plumber, to my disappointment, though Hank Williams, Jr. (late of Monday Night Football theme song fame) was on hand to rouse the arena crowd.

Schmidt was on hand as well, along with Nicole Wallace, the former White House communications director who had been detailed to shepherd Palin (Sarah Paulsen plays her in the movie, in which she dramatically says she didn't vote for president), and McCain's longtime advisor and co-author Mark Salters, whose writing and counsel had done so much to help McCain make a very appealing sense of his life and who had never been a Palin fan. As they huddled and talked, it was clear that they were not at all happy.

Talking with Schmidt there in Columbus and later on that weekend before the election, he was philosophical. The campaign had gone for some big plays to try to alter the equation and win the election. That's what professional political operatives do. Palin had clearly not worked out. And Schmidt was clearly second-guessing himself.

On election night in Phoenix, an unrepentant, indeed emboldened Palin sought to deliver her very own concession speech, which she viewed as a bridge to her own ongoing leadership in national Republican politics. Schmidt refused to allow it.

She was already plotting to continue the virulent rightward move in Republican politics which we see in today's presidential primaries.

In 2008, Mitt Romney, ever the chameleon, ran as a champion of social conservatives and the staunch right-wing. Today, he is just as conservative, if not more so, championing anything goes finance capitalism and neoconservative geopolitics. But much of the rest of the party is even more conservative. Even though the candidates are not nearly as formidable as those of 2008, Romney would be not only in a lengthy dog fight but almost certainly finished if there were not two strong right-wing alternatives -- in the form of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- but one such.

Romney can't win in the geographic heart of the GOP, the Deep South, even when Santorum and Newt are both running up big conservative votes. This is part of the game change of Game Change, mainstreaming the extreme in the Republican Party as Palin did. It also is yet another example of the hollowness of Romney's candidacy. Even with all his financial advantages.

The Manchurian Candidate craziness has really stuck in the heart of the Republican Party. Less than a fifth of Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi, where Santorum recently won very notable victories, believe that Obama is a Christian, even though he's attended church for decades. The vast majority either believe he is a Muslim or suspect he is a Muslim, even though there is no evidence of that.

Then, too, there is the "birther" nonsense which so transfixed the Republican Party and still bubbles not far below the surface, which is part and parcel of the Manchurian Candidate delusion.

Palin's emergence also played a huge role in driving the devolution of the media culture into hysteria and hyper-partisanship.

There is something about Palin that drives right-wingers wild and drives left-wingers to distraction. That's what Palin largely is, a distraction. A toxic distraction. She could never win a national election. But she helped further dumb down the national dialogue, using up far too much media bandwidth with nasty ideologically driven back-and-forths which make the culture more coarse and do little more than turn politics into warring camps playing an especially vicious form of identity politics ping pong.

The extremes of feeling she whipped up pro and con also further drove the trivial pursuits that already transfixed the media culture. I don't give a damn about her private life, what the deal is with her children, the circumstances of her baby's birth and all the other gossipy blither blather. But too many other bright people who imagine that they are engaged in real politics certainly have. And it's enabled them to do so without having to know anything serious about a very complex, non-2D world.

Frankly, Palin is an ignoramus, a "reality TV" type celebrity, and she ended up driving a nasty sort of dumbed-down politics that this country simply cannot afford. Just as The Best and the Brightest can be a lethally dangerous myth, as David Halberstam's classic book of the same name about the credentialed meritocrats who ingeniously bogged us down in Vietnam demonstrates, so too is the notion that mediocrity and determined ignorance are credentials for leadership.

Considering that this piece began with a sports reference, it's fitting to close with another.

Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, had a famous saying: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." That's not really true, of course, but it's one of those aphorisms that sticks in political consultant culture, along with the wit and wisdom of Michael Corleone.

Steve Schmidt has delivered a series of mea culpas for his role in promoting Sarah Palin to the heights of American politics, an act which many believe created a political monster. He wasn't alone in that and in the end it was not his decision. But it's clear that going for the win, the sine qua non of consultant culture, created a bad result.

I wonder how differently things would have gone had Palin not been the pick.

Obama still would have been president. But any of the other vice presidential candidates would likely have behaved more responsibly, because none would have been so desperate to cover up his ignorance with rhetorical bluster.

Yet the Manchurian Candidate fantasy which proved to be so dominant in Republican circles wasn't started by Palin. She just tapped into it, in lieu of getting more knowledge into her head. Viral e-mails, as I wrote here in the fall of 2008 (see "The Manchurian Candidate Fantasy: Paranoia and Irony Abound" linked above), began circulating against Obama in 2006.

And the party itself was already heading further right of George W. Bush.

Fox News, always conservative, was becoming even more conservative. McCain was a national war hero but still had to fend off vicious attacks from the increasingly powerful Talk Radio Right. He had already had to back away from his immigration reform efforts with Kennedy, efforts which Bush largely supported.

Even in California, where Schmidt helped guide Schwarzenegger to a landslide re-election 2006 victory, right-sliding party delegates rejected Schwarzenegger's speech to the state convention outside Palm Springs less than a year later urging a more centrist course. Instead, they leapt to their feet at the far right red meat offered up right after Schwarzenegger left the stage by Texas Governor Rick Perry.

When I saw McCain the next day, he sensed the convention mood and delivered a rather hurried luncheon address before moving on.

So all the elements of Palinism, which became Tea Party-ism, were already moving into place, and it's entirely possible that the virulent backlash to the first black president of the United States would have taken place even if Sarah Palin never left Alaska.

We'll never know for sure. What we do know is that Sarah Palin crystallized all of it, providing the real game change, leading to a result that neither McCain nor Schmidt could ever have intended: The eclipse of their own brand of politics.

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