Oh what a tangled web he’s Weavered

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Jonathan Martin’s terrific piece on the unraveling of Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign has garnered deserved attention. But one quote — from Huntsman’s long-time confidant David Fischer regarding chief strategist John Weaver — struck me as especially noteworthy.

Fischer said that one of the reasons he was going public with his story was because, “Weaver’s history in past campaigns is when they don’t work out, for whatever reason, he attacks the candidate.”

Put in historical context, Fischer’s worries may not be absurd.

To understand Weaver’s psyche is to understand his long-running and bitter rivalry with fellow Texan Karl Rove, which goes much deeper than the 2000 GOP primary. Once friends and allies, as The Atlantic’s Joshua Green noted, their relationship turned ugly and personal: “[A]fter Weaver went into business for himself and lured away one of Rove’s top employees, Rove spread a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man at a state Republican function.” The stench of that rumor hovered over Weaver’s political career in Texas for years.

After years of Texas matches, Weaver and Rove squared off in a high-stakes national contest in 2000 when Rove was George W. Bush’s “brain” and Weaver worked for Sen. John McCain. According to Dan Balz and Anne Kornblut, on the 2000 McCain campaign, Weaver “conducted a daily 6 a.m. campaign conference call and took attendance, with no exceptions: If any individual joined the call late, it would move up half an hour, to 5:30 a.m., the following day.” The notion advanced by Fischer (and other former Huntsman aides) that Weaver is a difficult boss certainly rings true.

When Bush vanquished McCain in the bitter 2000 primary battle, their rival campaign gurus didn’t shake hands and join forces to defeat Al Gore. Instead (as Martin’s post notes), Weaver “briefly became a Democrat in the Bush years.”

That line, I think, understates Weaver’s apostasy.

In fact (as Martin noted in 2007) Weaver didn’t just dabble in Democratic politics — he “advised the DCCC, Dem congressional leaders and said nice things about some of the Dems’ 2004 White House hopefuls.” He also left the party before Bush beat Gore. And despite becoming a Democrat, he continued to advise McCain.

A closer look at Weaver’s record reveals a long drama-filled losing streak.

As it turned out, he probably picked a bad time to try to help Democrats win elections. Weaver’s losing streak followed him as he crossed party lines. The early 2000s, ironically for Weaver, were a good time to be a Republican. Despite his departure, Weaver ultimately rejoined the Republican side, working on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Leading McCain’s campaigns for a decade as chief political strategist, Weaver had helped craft the image of “the maverick” and “straight talker.” But this time around, he was also intimately involved in a potential scandal, which threatened to derail McCain’s ambitions. He confronted lobbyist Vicki Iseman in 1999 and told her to stay away from McCain. The New York Times  broke the story, and some observers even speculated Weaver was the one who leaked it.

McCain wasn’t damaged by the mini-scandal, but the campaign was already off to a rocky start. Weaver accepted blame for McCain’s meltdown, saying the campaign “believ[ed] its own b.s.” According to the New York Magazine, he spent over 90 percent of McCain’s funds and saddled the campaign with $2 million in debt.

Weaver’s political life didn’t begin with John McCain. In 1996, he advised the presidential campaign of Phil Gramm, whose campaign (despite generating early buzz and high expectations) failed to catch fire. McCain was national chairman of Gramm’s campaign.

But it was McCain who made Weaver a known commodity, and after the 2008 race ended, Weaver attempted to return to GOP consulting. He advised Sarah Steeleman, an attractive conservative rising star who was expected to run for U.S. Senate in Missouri. The campaign fizzled before it started. He joined Tim Cahill’s campaign for Massachusetts governor in 2010, then quit as the campaign took a nosedive.  “I would prefer Tim Cahill be the next governor,” Weaver told the Boston Herald. “That’s not going to happen.”

From Phil Gramm in 1996 to Jon Huntsman in 2012, the interesting thing to note about Weaver’s career is how little he won, considering the potential of his candidates.

One of the problems with this story is that it risks making Huntsman look weak. As the Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo blogged, “Huntsman isn’t a match for hard-hitter Jon Weaver, his top campaign advisor.”

Just as Ed Rollins’ recent outbursts about Sarah Palin prompted some to speculate Michele Bachmann should dump him from her campaign, there is surely an argument that Huntsman could now reignite his campaign — and demonstrate leadership — by dumping Weaver.

After Weaver departed the McCain campaign in 2007, McCain aide Rick Davis took over day-to-day management of the campaign, which ultimately rebounded to win the New Hampshire Primary and then the GOP nomination.

Speaking on background about Martin’s story, one former McCain aide told The Daily Caller: “Weaver’s coercive; [I’m] surprised it took this long to get to this point. The question now is does Huntsman have a Rick Davis who can pick up the pieces?”

Matt K. Lewis