Behind the Scheunemann Firing

Thursday, November 06, 2008 at 10:12 am

Last week, according to CNN, the McCain campaign quietly fired its senior foreign-policy adviser, the neoconservative d-lister Randy Scheunemann, in a move that entirely escaped the campaign coverage. Scheunemann’s alleged offense was his alleged griping to Bill Kristol of the neoconservative Weekly Standard and The New York Times about dysfunctionality in the campaign and to promote Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s interests ahead of the candidates.

It may not have gone down the way CNN originally reported. Scheunemann denies being fired, but the supposedly exculpatory explanation, delivered by campaign spokesman Michael Goldfarb, is that “Scheunemann’s campaign e-mail was cut off, and his blackberry was taken away late Friday,” making it something of a distinction without a difference. Of course, Goldfarb’s pre- and post-campaign day job is online editor for the Weekly Standard, so there’s a potential conflict of interest here.

But what’s going on?

One explanation is that neoconservatism is entering its third great search for a champion. Many have remarked that the imperialist strain in American foreign policy doesn’t have a natural political constituency, so neoconservatism has to graft itself onto a host, invest that host with its doctrinal heft, and promote that host’s futures once he or she becomes symbiotic with the movement.

It’s easy to forget that, before the 1996 election, Kristol and the Standard tried to make Gen. Colin L. Powell their champion, but when it became clear that Powell’s views were both deeply held and deeply hostile to neoconservatism, the Standard tore him down when he became President George W. Bush’s secretary of state.

The next host, whose views already harmonized well with the neocons, became Sen. John McCain. Only after 9/11 — and then, primarily by the grace of Dick Cheney — did the neocons promote Bush as a Great Man of History, for the simple reason that he embraced their vision as a reaction to the terrorist attacks.

And there’s the problem for them. Washington Republicans are rushing to distance themselves from the Iraq war, happy to push the blame onto the neocons for playing an outsize role in contributing to the Great Electoral Collapses of 2006 and 2008. Neoconservatism’s failures are both policy failures and, more damaging in the world of conservatism, electoral failures.

What conservative politician in his or her right mind would embrace neoconservatism now? And of that pool of available vessels, who could command an authentic constituency to glide the neocons back to power? Asked that way, the questions answer themselves, don’t they.

Over the last week, Standard writers have been promoting Palin at the McCain camp’s expense, unsubtly jumping horses mid-apocalypse. Most boldly, Standard executive editor Fred Barnes last week shanked senior McCain staffer Nicolle Wallace for the embarrassing story that Palin went on a high-end shopping spree with GOP money, saying Wallace was responsible. As TWI’s Ana Marie Cox reported for The Daily Beast, the McCain forces clapped back at Barnes and forced him to apologize on television. The Scheunemann migration to Palin — who reportedly wowed Kristol and Barnes during a 2007 cruise to Alaska, according to Jane Mayer of the New Yorker — fits the pattern rather neatly.

Palin is a return to the Bush or Dan Quayle (Kristol’s old boss) model: a vapid, ignorant politician with an angry streak. As Matt DeLong just pointed out, Fox’s Carl Cameron is reporting that Palin didn’t know that Africa was a continent and not a country, though that might come from McCain loyalists acting uncharitably. A segment of conservatism still champions Palin, even though it appears that Palin cost McCain support from independents who didn’t think her prepared to take over the presidency.

Whether conservatives will embrace Palin when they have policy-heavy and deeply-religious young alternatives like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal remains to be seen, obviously. But Palin needs a policy platform if she wants to run for president — and the neoconservatives desperately need a political force they can ride back into power.

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