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Don’t blame Steve Schmidt

Two years ago, Steve Schmidt was feted by the American Association of Political Consultants as the GOP Campaign Manager of the Year for resuscitating the political fortunes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had been left for dead after we helped bring his approval rating down to 30 percent and defeat all of his signature ballot initiatives.

Just last month, when John McCain inched ahead of Barack Obama after the GOP convention, Schmidt was hailed as a savior by commentators and Republican operatives alike. A New York Times profile lauded him for molding “a tighter, more aggressive John McCain.” Karl Rove opined that Schmidt’s takeover of the campaign was the “best thing to have happened to McCain.” Last week former Bush media man Mark McKinnon told Newsweek that Schmidt “may be the best pure message consultant I’ve ever worked with.”

This week, it’s off with his damn fool head. William Kristol led a chorus of angry Republicans in bewailing the McCain campaign’s toxic “combination of strategic incoherence and operational incompetence,” and urging the staff be fired.

Was Schmidt a genius last month and a fool this week? Did Karl Rove suffer a head injury between 2004, when he was called brilliant, and 2006, when he was lambasted as a boob?

Hardly. These reputational roller coaster rides are generated by a mental foible so pervasive, and so pernicious, that psychologists call it “fundamental attribution error.”

It is the natural human tendency to overweight the role of people as causal agents while underweighting the significance of situations.

A simple and nearly ancient experiment illustrates this point. Subjects listened to speeches about Castro, but were told the speakers had been assigned to take either the pro or anti side. Many, nonetheless, interpreted the speech as reflecting the speaker’s real position, overweighting what they heard from the speaker and underweighting what they know to be true about the situation.

It happens because, as social animals, human beings are trained to watch for the influence of our species; because we communicate in stories, and stories have protagonists; and because situations lurk in the background, failing to stand out in bold relief, while people are vivid.

So it is with campaigns. Schmidt looks like a wizard when a natural and completely predictable convention bump pushes McCain ahead for a few days, but incompetent when the fundamentals I have been describing in these columns for two years reassert themselves, propelling Obama back into the lead.

Those same fundamentals tarnished Karl Rove in 2006 after having benefited him in 2004.

I’m no Schmidt apologist, having condemned the deceitful campaign he has run.

But it is not Steve Schmidt’s fault that McCain is running for a third Republican term — a situation that statistical analyses indicate exacts a four-point penalty on the incumbent party.

It is not Steve Schmidt’s fault that George Bush is the most unpopular president in the history of polling, and probably in the nation’s history.

It’s not Steve Schmidt’s fault that voters perceive this as the worst economy since the Great Depression.

It’s not Schmidt’s fault Iraq is the most unpopular war the U.S. has ever fought.

Yet those fundamentals do vastly more to dictate the outcome of this election than anything Schmidt has done or could do.

However, that doesn’t absolve everyone of responsibility. Some situations arise on their own — no blame attaches to anyone for the fact that Republicans are seeking a third party term — it’s simply a fact of life.

By contrast, Bush’s extraordinary unpopularity, the economic disaster we now face and the disaster in Iraq did not happen by themselves. Those failures are owned by some of the very people now calling for Steve Schmidt’s head.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.