If you enjoy insider-y accounts of turmoil in a presidential campaign–and what political junkie doesn’t?–you definitely need to read the long Jonathan Martin piece at Politico on the increasingly public implosion of Huntsman ’12. Based on campaign sources (most notably former eminence grise and Huntsman family friend David Fischer, who went on the record), Martin has written a tale of a campaign that seems to have become a rolling ball of madness. There’s vicious infighting, logistical incompetence, frequent staff departures, money problems, F-bombs being dropped regularly in business meetings, and the candidate’s family frequently wondering what’s wrong. One story involves Fischer getting into a nasty dispute with the central figure in the drama, the famous on-again, off-again McCain strategist John Weaver, over Fischer’s report that the campaign had just hired a staffer who “had a reputation for preying on young female volunteers.”
You can check your schadenfreude tolerance levels and read the whole piece yourself. But what I found most interesting is that having helped Martin expose all this juicy material to the world, David Fischer himself wants to make it clear that wasn’t really his chief beef with Weaver:
[I]f the story gets told, I want the story to be, because Weaver’s history in past campaigns is when they don’t work out, for whatever reason, he attacks the candidate. And in this case, I am hoping that people at least focus on, well, what went wrong here? The strategy went wrong. The strategy didn’t work. At least to this day it hasn’t worked.
Bingo. Whatever else is going on inside the Huntsman campaign, it’s Weaver’s strategy–first laid out even before the future candidate made the unwise decision to become part of the Obama administration as ambassador to China–that was the fundamental problem. In what appeared to be, from a distance anyway, something of an effort to relive his salad days as the architect of McCain’s brief breakthrough in the 2000 presidential race, Weaver insisted that Huntsman run as a mavericky moderate hostile to the ideological bender his party is currently on, in hopes of appealing to independents who get to vote in Republican primaries in states like New Hampshire. This is how Weaver had Huntsman talking even before he left the U.S. for Beijing (as shown in Zvika Krieger’s fine 2009 profile), and nothing changed when the former governor returned and Weaver presented him with a prefab campaign and message.
Even in 2009, it was pretty obvious the GOP was going in a direction that made Huntsman’s “move to the center” rap positively suicidal. This year it has quickly made him a non-factor in the presidential race, surviving basically on the fumes of the candidate’s popularity among the Beltway pundit crowd that likes to imagine that a genial Mandarin-speaking business tycoon is just what the doctor ordered, even though virtually everything the man says and does is anathema to the activists who will determine his fate. In the wake of this latest furor, Huntsman has sought to minimize the damage and has restated his confidence in Weaver. But if as appears certain Huntsman continues to go nowhere fast in his pursuit of the presidency, Weaver’s disservice to him is a lot more basic than whatever sins he might have committed in running off campaign staff or wasting time waging internal battles: He sold Huntsman a strategic bill of goods from the get-go, and as Fischer says, it ain’t working.
It’s ironic that this simple reality may be buried in all the lip-smacking over “turmoil in the Huntsman campaign,” with Fisher supplying the ammunition. Strategy really does matter, sometimes a lot more than its execution.