Commentary: Steve Schmidt faces heat after 'Game Change'

The Sacramento BeeMarch 22, 2012 

Some conservatives speak volumes as they try to pillory Steve Schmidt, the strategist who helped run John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and lately has been getting attention thanks to Woody Harrelson's portrayal of him in the movie, "Game Change."

Pay a visit to Conservatives4Palin.com. There, you'll find everything critical about Schmidt. There's a link to a Washington Times piece that denounces him as "a longtime loser," and a broadcast by an angry New York-based radio talk show host, Mark Levin.

"Steve you're quite the punk. You really are a punk," Levin said, incensed that Schmidt would dare to belittle McCain's vice presidential choice, Sarah Palin.

On the flip side, Schmidt has become a regular on MSNBC, offering a conservative counterpoint to the hosts' liberal slant. With Schmidt on hand to provide authentication, "Game Change" gave MSNBC folks plenty of dish about Palin. When I reached Schmidt by phone, he seemed to wear the attacks by Palin's acolytes like a badge of honor.

"I believe it is a profound mistake to define conservatism around issues like gay marriage and contraception," Schmidt told me, "and around a cult of personality, where a true conservative is defined by fidelity to individual radio hosts or the outrageous statements they make."

Conservative talkers are free to use supposedly public airwaves to hurl names at Schmidt. But he has hardly been a loser. Some of what he accomplished in his 41 years is enough to give nightmares to his MSNBC friends.

Schmidt got his start in politics in California as a 20-something aide who ran Tim Leslie's 1998 campaign for lieutenant governor and Matt Fong's U.S. Senate candidacy. Those humbling campaigns didn't work out well, and the New Jersey native made his way back East.

He became part of George W. Bush's 2004 re-election team, one of nine people who met regularly at the D.C. home of Bush's senior strategist, Karl Rove, who nicknamed him "Bullet." Schmidt framed a note he got after the victory: "Steve, I meant what I said Thursday. Victory would have been impossible without you. Best, Karl."

He has other keepsakes from those days: a tally card from the U.S. Senate, showing a 78-22 vote in 2005 to confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the United States, and a 2006 card showing the 58-42 vote for Justice Samuel Alito. Scribbled on a card is this note: "Steve, You do great work. 2 for 2 on the Supreme Court. Dick" – as in Vice President Cheney.

Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, who was counselor to Bush, led the Roberts confirmation effort with Schmidt's help; Schmidt took the lead on Alito.

"Steve played a very important role," Gillespie told me.

Schmidt came back West in 2006 to manage Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election. The action hero won easily.

Schmidt was reluctant to sign on to the 2008 McCain campaign. It was grueling, commuting between Washington, Arizona and suburban Sacramento where he and his family lived. It became tougher after McCain selected Palin as his running mate, a move that Schmidt urged.

At the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, there was a media onslaught when it became known that Palin's unmarried daughter Bristol was pregnant. Schmidt, a tough guy with the shaved head, bulled his way into the press area in the convention center, where he was immediately surrounded.

I was there and asked a question about the situation. Schmidt went off. No one would dare ask such questions about a man, he said, indignant. It was quite a show. In a quieter time that week, he said he was sorry, nice but not necessary. He had been playing his part.

While Palin was energizing the base in Minneapolis, Schmidt stepped out of character and went to a gathering of the Log Cabin Republicans, and told the organization of gay Republicans about how close he is to his sister and her partner. In what some conservatives see as an apostasy, he embraced the notion of same-sex marriage.

As some insiders see it, Schmidt violated consultants' unwritten rules by coming out as a "Game Change" source. But the resigned Alaska governor struck first, excoriating Schmidt in her 2009 book "Going Rogue."

In the movie, Harrelson offers a Schmidtism that news lasts for 48 hours. History lasts longer. This episode isn't over. It has to do with the future of the GOP.

Presidential politics shouldn't be a function of conspiracy theories and personal attacks, in which one candidate claims that a rival palled around with terrorists or about where he was born. As Schmidt believes, the nation's leaders ought to be better than that. Voters ought to demand it.

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