The McCain Mutiny

Can his reeling presidential campaign survive today’s carnage?

John McCain 
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John McCain

As a plebe at the Naval Academy, John McCain was a scrappy boxer. His technique, as described in The Nightingale’s Song, was to rush into the middle of the ring and start throwing punches until the other guy went down. Today, he applied this approach to his presidential campaign, but this time, he may have knocked himself out.

McCain, who has suffered from a plunge in the polls and anemic fund raising, today accepted the resignation of his campaign manager and his top political strategist. His closest longtime aide, Mark Salter, also has an uncertain future with the campaign. And shortly after the news of the top-level carnage was announced, the campaign’s deputy campaign manger and political director also resigned. There will likely be even more defections. (Two staffers said “for now,” when I asked if they were staying.)

No one staffer (or even a minivan full of them) is crucial to a campaign. Ronald Reagan and John Kerry fired their top strategists and went on to win the nomination. But McCain has already retooled his campaign machine several times, which makes this reshuffle look less like a modification and more like a complete crackup. “The campaign is imploding,” said one McCain staffer, echoing a word used by others.

Why the collapse now? Before McCain left for Iraq over the July Fourth weekend, he was angry with his leadership team, accusing them of wasting millions in campaign funds. (One source told me he outright accused his staff of swindling him.) He had been under pressure from donors and advisers to fire campaign manager Terry Nelson for the campaign’s dismal fund-raising results and inability to keep costs under control. When McCain returned from Iraq, he met with Nelson and strategist John Weaver Monday morning. After a heated exchange, Nelson offered his resignation. When McCain accepted it, Weaver resigned.

Those who remain are trying to argue that McCain is showing leadership by holding his top brass accountable, but the episode looks more like the last scene in Hamlet—a stack of bodies piled up just before the curtain.

Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime chief of staff, co-author of his five books, and speechwriter, followed Weaver—at least in spirit. Though Salter did not formally resign, he might as well have, says one source close to the matter.

Nelson’s departure is not all that shocking. He worked for George Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 and was always at odds with Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager in 2000. Davis is now taking over the show. But the exodus of Weaver and Salter is another matter. Since before the 2000 campaign, they have been at the heart of the gritty, tortured McCain operation. They rode on the bus and retreated to McCain’s mountain cabin for downtime. Salter is often described as McCain’s alter ego. Weaver, nicknamed “Sunny” for his intense, occasionally dark demeanor, has been working on McCain’s presidential efforts since the late ‘90s. He knows the field staff across the country and the contours of the national political landscape. The two men were McCain’s loyal sidekicks, throwing chairs and knocking over glasses when McCain started a bar brawl. “It’s going to be fun,” he told them before 2000, and even when it wasn’t, the candidate and staff seemed to feed off each other’s energy. They took an almost perverse delight in their boss’s unpredictability and their uphill cause. But the happy warrior of 2000 is gone, and with it the swoony notion that McCain was a special, different kind of candidate. “The message is that when the going gets tough, McCain dumps his team,” said one McCain adviser.

One can get overly romantic about the McCain team (I know, I’ve done it). The 2000 race may have been a swashbuckling adventure, but it was undisciplined. And those taking charge of the campaign today argue that it was actually McCain’s connection to his top lieutenants that was hurting his campaign this time. Davis will offer the management and discipline that the others lacked.

McCain will have lots of future tough calls to make. In addition to all of the other hard things McCain will have to do in the coming months—defend the Iraq troop surge, watch his youngest boy deploy there, and court conservatives who deeply distrust him—he’ll also have to develop a relationship with a new campaign team. He’s an undisciplined candidate, which is part of his charm, but there’s no evidence that McCain will listen to a new campaign general any more than he did the last one.

The episode will also damage McCain in an unexpected way. It has given ammunition to all those who say McCain lacks a presidential temperament. He has known since the start of the race that other campaigns have been waiting to portray him as a man with an uncontrollable temper. In private talks with supporters, he has promised that he’s not going to give his rivals any opening. Now he has. It would be hard enough for any campaign to spin this breakup, but it’s inhumanly hard to spin it if you already have a reputation for being a hothead.

As the news was breaking about his campaign, McCain was on the Senate floor, arguing that the troop surge in Iraq was working and that the president should be given more time. Running a presidential campaign is supposed to prepare candidates for the crucible of the job. If McCain can survive this death blow to his campaign and still recover to win the election, then managing Iraq should be a snap for him.