Former McCain Strategist Offers Hindsight

Republican John McCain suffered a big defeat to Democrat Barack Obama. John Weaver was the campaign's chief strategist until the summer of 2007, when he resigned amid a staff shake-up as the campaign was on the verge of collapse. Weaver talks with Renee Montagne about why he thinks McCain lost.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In conceding defeat, John McCain offered a graceful tribute to his rival and called on everyone to unite behind the new president-elect in the days ahead. He also looked back at his loss.

(Soundbite of John McCain's concession speech, Phoenix, Arizona)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I don't know what more we could have done to try to win this election. I'll leave that to others to determine. Every candidate makes mistakes, and I'm sure I made my share of them. But I won't spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been.

MONTAGNE: Whether wistful or critical, many who believed in a McCain presidency are taking stock of what might have been. And we've asked former McCain adviser John Weaver for his assessment. Weaver was chief strategist until July 2007 when he left over differences on how to run the campaign. But he stayed friendly with the campaign. And Weaver says the defeat was not easy.

Mr. JOHN WEAVER (Former Chief Strategist, McCain Campaign): I felt very melancholy about it. I know John to be a great and good man. I thought he would be a transcendent president. But at the same time, I was also proud of our country because we are marking a milestone and moving in a direction that I think speaks well for who we are as a people. But I was sad, of course.

MONTAGNE: You had not liked the direction that Senator McCain's campaign had taken. What did you think was the biggest mistake?

Mr. WEAVER: Well, first, I was very proud of how John captured the nomination. He put the campaign on his back literally and just out of just grit won the nomination. I think the mistakes the campaign made going into the general election, they allowed themselves to drift really from the moment they secured the nomination, for all intents and purposes, in late January and early February until midsummer. They didn't offer a cogent reason for people to support John on anything other than foreign policy.

And some basics. If you're going to define your opponent, you do it early on in the process. You don't wait and do it after he's secured the nomination, after he's been at his convention, and after he's debated you a couple of times. By that point, he has defined himself. So they missed an opportunity. And then secondly, I think, when they did make a move internally, and they elevated some other people to the campaign leadership in July, they were faced with some hard choices. So I give them credit for having a strategy at that point, but obviously I did disagree with running celebrity ads and negative ads that were not germane to the public discourse. It was as if the country was speaking economic English and the campaign was speaking angry Greek.

MONTAGNE: You know, when you speak of angry Greek - meaning it wasn't a language that was meaningful.

Mr. WEAVER: It was not meaningful. It was not germane to the topics. I'm sure that people were concerned about William Ayers, if you tested it. And I'm sure that they're concerned about the threat of Anthrax. Having said that, though. It wasn't relevant to the discussion. And so Senator Obama's campaign which had great message discipline, they were in the marketplace where people were concerned about the economy. We seemed to be across the street talking about something else that they didn't care about.

MONTAGNE: What did you make of the choice of Sarah Palin?

Mr. WEAVER: Yeah, I thought it was a tactical choice aimed at stopping Senator Obama's momentum coming out of his convention and aimed at pleasing the Republican base. And I thought it was a mistake at that time, and it's proven to be a mistake.

MONTAGNE: It did, though it did please the Republican base.

Mr. WEAVER: Well, that is true. But you have to remember this is not a base election, and our base is smaller than it had been. The election was going to be won in the broad center, which had always been John McCain's appeal, to soft Republicans, independents, and soft Democrats. And if anybody was ever in a position to reach out to the broad center, you would have thought it would have been John McCain. And at the end of the day, this is not Sarah Palin's fault. She was not vetted in an appropriate way. And it was taking someone with little experience but with great political skills, and strapping them onto a rocket. It was just an inappropriate pick.

MONTAGNE: John McCain's concession speech on Tuesday night was very different than the speeches that he had been giving on the campaign trail in recent weeks and even months. Why do you think?

Mr. WEAVER: Well, that was the John McCain that I think the American public remember from 2000, and through the first Bush term, and up until 2006. And I think if they'd seen more of that John McCain, being very gracious and putting his country before his own political ambition, states like Florida and North Carolina and Virginia and Ohio and Indiana, I think we could have won. That doesn't get you to 270, but it gets you very close. And I don't want to take anything away from what was a spectacular campaign run by Senator Obama, and it was a textbook campaign.

MONTAGNE: John Weaver, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WEAVER: Yeah. Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: John Weaver was chief strategist for the McCain campaign until the summer of 2007.

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