In Monty Python and theHoly Grail, King Arthur and his knights face a test at the Bridge of Death. Each must answer three questions from the bridge keeper. A knight who errs, even a little, is shot skyward and into the gorge of eternal peril.
Phil Gramm took this trip last week after giving the wrong answer about the state of the economy. The former senator from Texas and top economic adviser to John McCain declared that the country was experiencing merely a “mental recession” and that America had become a nation of “whiners.” Almost immediately, Gramm’s lanky frame was sailing overhead. McCain repudiated Gramm’s remarks and said he understood people were experiencing legitimate hardship. Though McCain joked that Gramm would be his ambassador to the outlaw republic of Belarus, the campaign quickly got serious about making it clear that Gramm was banished not just to the outer regions but entirely. McCain’s top policy adviser said he wouldn’t be talking to Gramm anymore and neither would McCain. On Sunday, one of McCain’s top surrogates, Carly Fiorina, sent the message again: “I don’t think Sen. Gramm will any longer be speaking for John McCain.”
Gramm may have spoken some literal truth, but the reasons for his ejection were obvious. He not only insulted the voters but gave fodder to McCain’s critics, who say the GOP nominee doesn’t understand the country’s economy and therefore can’t improve it. Gramm was not the first to be sent aloft in this campaign. Last month, Barack Obama lost Jim Johnson, the head of his vice-presidential vetting team, once it was revealed that Johnson had an insider loan from a company Obama had used as the poster child of corporate excess.
During the primaries, Obama’s foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power was jettisoned after calling Hillary Clinton a monster. Hillary Clinton threw Geraldine Ferraro overboard for suggesting Obama was doing well only because he was black, then Clinton dropped her New Hampshire campaign co-chairman for talking about Obama’s past drug use. The gorge is getting full, and we’ve got plenty of months to go.
Like the flamboyant taking of umbrage, the successful modern candidate must learn to master the skill of quickly throwing errant allies under the bus. Previous presidents and candidates have had to dispatch aides, of course, but this time around, the disposal rate is greater and for lesser crimes. The pace is dizzying, especially compared with the extreme loyalty President Bush showed his people. (Political elites regularly declared Bushies dead and then watched them keep their jobs long afterward.) The practice has become so regular in the 2008 campaign that “throwing someone under the bus” has itself become a cliché.
Since everything moves faster in this election, it makes sense that a surrogate’s trip from favorite to Fredo would be faster, too. The news cycle changes several times a day, and no campaign wants to lose a single one. Cut a surrogate loose and you can get back on message. For McCain, who is having trouble showing empathy on the economy (not an easy thing for any candidate to do), casting Gramm aside was the message. It may be one of the flashiest ways McCain can show he understands that people are feeling economic pain throughout the campaign. It’s also better to have the press covering a process story (McCain threw Gramm under the bus) than the underlying question of whether McCain and his advisers are irreversibly tone deaf on fuel and food prices and financial insecurity.
If a campaign fails to move fast, aides and the candidate will be asked about the offending surrogate at each opportunity. Rudy Giuliani’s association with Bernie Kerik * ate away at his credibility and contributed to his decline. As Obama put it when talking about his reluctance to cut his ties to his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, “When you’re in national politics, it’s always good to pull the Band-Aid off quick.”
The pace of ejection has also increased because there are more opportunities for associates to blow it. Candidates require more surrogates to feed the constant cable beast. That means more open microphones to capture noodlings and inanities that used to be lost in obscure rubber-chicken dinners with party functionaries. As one campaign veteran put it, the first rule of surrogates used to be that surrogates didn’t matter; if what they were doing did count, the campaign wouldn’t have sent a surrogate in the first place. Now, though, what a surrogate says can run on cable television all day. Obama’s top economic aide, Austan Goolsbee, became the center of a controversy over Obama’s position on NAFTA in the spring, and the episode might have cost him his job if he’d been caught on tape. Since it wasn’t, Goolsbee merely went into hiding for several weeks until the storm blew over and has recently reappeared on the campaign’s conference calls.
The surrogates are especially likely to make mischief when they’re supposed to be helping the candidate shore up a weakness (and then blow it). If McCain had a better record on tax cuts, he wouldn’t have needed Gramm to convince supply-side enthusiasts (a “validator,” in campaign-speak). Obama faces the same equation on national-security issues, which is why he distanced himself from Gen. Wesley Clark’s dig * about McCain’s military service counting as executive experience. (Obama didn’t have to throw Clark over because he didn’t officially work for the campaign.)
The downside to throwing aside advisers too easily is that voters might worry about a candidate’s previous judgment. Why did he surround himself with such fools? Voters might also wonder that a candidate who shows so little loyalty might not govern well. On the other hand, McCain and Obama both have longtime aides and advisers, which suggests they have no serious underlying problem with being loyal. Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, would have to start cartooning for The New Yorker to lose his campaign job. Charlie Black, one of McCain’s top advisers, got into hot water when he said McCain would benefit from a terrorist attack. But he kept his job because he’s a valued strategist and because his gaffe, if it was that, is one the McCain campaign is happy to have bandied about, since polls show people trust McCain to deal with terrorism.
Gramm, by contrast, was expendable. Putting him onstage during the primaries when Republicans were trying to show who was more conservative sent a message that McCain was committed to tax cuts and deregulation. Now McCain needs to make the point that comes from not having Gramm on the stage at all.
Corrections, July 15, 2008: This article originally misspelled Bernie Kerik’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also misspelled Wesley Clark’s name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)