On the Prowl

Bailout Fallout

By From the November 2008 issue

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While many conservative Republicans viewed the Wall Street bailout bill as a disaster, others were privately pleased with the way the politics played out. The two most satisfied Republicans may have been House GOP deputy whip Eric Cantor and House conference chair Adam Putnam, who were both front and center for the cameras as the bill was initially killed, then resurrected by Republicans and passed. “Both have their eyes on bigger jobs in the next Congress. Both want to be higher-profile leaders,” says a House Republican leadership aide.

But both privately were supporters of the House bailout bill, when many conservative members were of a differing opinion. And both reportedly had opportunities to push more forcefully for a conservative alternative to the legislation pushed by the Bush administration and Treasury Department.

That hasn’t stopped the chatter about Cantor potentially challenging Minority Leader John Boehner or House Whip Roy Blunt, who led negotiations in the first round of bailout bill negotiations.

Putnam is said to be interested in the House Whip post as well.

But six months ago, both men’s base was the conservative wing of the House, and that wing has been decimated by the bailout vote.

“We don’t know how many of those guys are going to survive this election cycle,” says the House leadership aide. “That bailout bill is going to be end up being a huge problem for a lot of our guys, not just this election cycle, but possibly the one after that, depending on what happens.”

Both Cantor and Putnam privately pressed conservative Republicans to help with passage of the second, pork-bloated version of the bailout bill. Meanwhile, current leadership blocked any attempt by conservatives to add more stringent oversight and management amendments to the bill.

“Boehner and Blunt were already on thin ice, and this may be the bill that ultimately puts them under,” says a House member who reluctantly voted for the second bill. “I don’t want any of them back, but it’s not clear to me who else steps up. We let down the American people, and I don’t see how any of us go home and look our constituents in the eye.”

McCain Dole-Drums

If Sen. John McCain loses the presidential election, recriminations will be broad and swift. Already, there is talk of who will take over management of a woefully mismanaged Republican National Committee, which because of McCain’s decision to accept public financing has borne the brunt of managing his national campaign. Current RNC chairman Mike Duncan stepped up to fill the void left by Sen. Mel Martinez’s exit, but has been a disappointment. “We needed a wartime chairman, someone who could be a real leader, and Duncan isn’t it,” says a current RNC employee. “We needed a [former RNC chairman Edward] Gillespie type, not a low-key manager.”

Further discussion will also focus on the team that surrounded McCain, which was famously ineffective and lived up to its nickname: “Dole ’08.”

“These guys were backbiting, bad-mouthing their own candidates and doing just about everything wrong,” says a current McCain senior staffer. “We had senior McCain and RNC leaders going out a week after Sarah Palin was announced as the running mate bad-mouthing her, McCain, and the ticket.”

In fact, some of McCain’s most trusted advisers—to both him and his wife, Cindy—were bad-mouthing Palin to the press in the days leading up to and during the Republican convention. “I’ve never seen a group of people so happily bad-mouth their guy and gal,” says another longtime McCain adviser. “It’s disgusting and there ought to be reckoning. We were talking ourselves out of victory when the battle wasn’t even close to being over.”

Obama’s Oppos

The campaign of Barack Obama in midsummer deployed a three-person research team to Arizona, among other locations, to compile materials, articles, and backup documents on Cindy McCain’s struggle with prescription painkillers, and for about a month shopped the materials to media outlets they felt would be receptive to following through on the information, according to a producer for CNN, who was approached.

A version of the McCain story was eventually published by the Washington Post in mid-September. The story was peddled by a Democratic political operative paid by the Obama campaign, according to the CNN producer, who says that while none of the primary materials were shown to him, he was told he’d receive “enough information and guidance” to make the story what the consultant called “explosive.”

The “explosive” nature of the story, according to the reporter, was the Obama’s campaign attempt to link Sen. John McCain to his wife’s problems.

"The guy kept trying to sell me on the idea that if we dug enough, we might find that Senator McCain had been using too,” says the producer. “It was obvious to me they wanted this to become a hit on Senator McCain. Cindy McCain was just the starting-off point.”

The producer says, “I didn’t touch it, and I know the Obama camp had difficulties finding a taker,” adding that he never spoke to his bosses about the information, in part out of concern that a higher-up might have been willing to run the story. “There are some anchors and senior news people who I think believe it is in their interest to help Obama. We are no better than MSNBC in that regard, though not as blatant about it.”

Political consultants paid by the Obama campaign also attempted to shop opposition research on the McCains’ adoptive daughter, Cindy McCain’s finances and family-owned business, and John McCain’s role in the “Keating Five” scandal, as well as information on Sarah Palin’s family. The same political consultant who pitched the McCain drug story likewise pushed a story that Palin was charging victims of rape for the rape kits used to detect the crimes and potentially convict those who committed the crimes. Even though that story had been debunked, the Boston Globe reported it as fact days before the vice-presidential debate.

Although Obama’s campaign has accused other campaigns of playing dirty and going negative, it more than any other has sought— and gained—the cooperation of reporters to attack his opponents.

According to a former Hillary Clinton political adviser, her campaign estimated that more than 50 percent of the negative and so-called “investigative” pieces about her came from Obama opposition sourcing.

“They are smart,” says the former Clinton hand about the Obama campaign. “They only provide memos and little material unless the reporter asks for files he can’t get on his own. They have the backup stuff, but won’t go that far. But the memos have enough info to make the reporting easy. I’ve seen some of them and there are lots of breadcrumbs.”

The Clinton consultant says that word among Democratic sources is that the same team that spent weeks on McCain research also wrapped up its work on Palin. “Reporters up there digging in Alaska were seeing the Obama people pulling the same stuff they were looking for, so it’s not going to be clear whether the dirt is coming from Obama or real reporting.” But for the Obama campaign, either outcome works just fine.

Obama’s Rummy

Retiring Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel has told friends that he would happily serve in the administration of Sen. Barack Obama, were he asked. Hagel has indicated to Obama staffers that he would be open to serving as defense secretary.

Hagel was the most prominent Republican to back Obama over his longtime friend John McCain. In fact, Hagel traveled with Obama during his Mideast tour earlier this year.

Softball

MSNBC talking head Chris Matthews is privately talking to longtime friends about the possibility of challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Matthews, who was born in Philadelphia, has also spoken to Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell about possibly making a run, according to a longtime Rendell fundraiser in Philadelphia. Matthews does have political experience beyond his TV yap; he worked for former Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill.

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