No, not the movie with Jack Nicholson.
I'm not quite sure what happened to Steve Schmidt. To be clear, I've always liked him, and was glad that MSNBC hired him as a commentator. He's a Republican strategist, and was an advisor to John McCain, running the day-to-say operations of the senator's 2008 presidential campaign. And I've found him to be a thoughtful, reasonably-objective voice when analyzing the news.
But then there was last night.
Mr. Schmidt was part of the network's State of the Union coverage on the panel, and all night he looked like he was spitting bullets, both before and after. Before was almost worse, even before the president had said a single word. He was in a scowl, angry at 10 members of the U.S. Navy being in the hands of Iran, in prison, close to suggesting it was President Obama's fault -- if not that they were captured, then at least that they were still there.
(If you missed the story, which is possible, since it didn't tend to make the headlines, which speaks loudly about its level of importance which Steve Schmidt was trying to turn into an international disaster, two Navy patrol boats ran into some mechanical problems and drifted into Iranian waters. Iran took the 10 into custody and was talking with the U.S. about returning them, pledging that they would be returned soon.)
Schmidt went on, saying that during the State of the Union speech the president had to be blunt, forceful and demand that Iran return the sailors, and make clear what the consequences were if they didn't do so immediately. He had to send a message not only to Iran, but to the rest of the world. Moreover, Mr. Schmidt appeared to be tying this outrage to the nuclear inspection deal the president had signed with Iran last year.
Rachel Maddow seemed a bit bewildered by all this and suggested that sometimes you can ratchet your response to such a level that it spins a matter to a higher level and out of control, and that negotiations for such things are usually done behind the scenes, and that maybe a presidential State of the Union Address was not the place for such pronouncements.
Steve Schmidt was having none of it. The president had to demand the Americans returned and lay down the consequences in no uncertain terms, he explained. Americans were in prison. And Iran had a history of being untrustworthy in this sort of sort of thing. It was terrible, awful, and the president had to say something during the speech to the world.
You will note that President Obama did not make any demands about the prisoners or threats. Nor did he even reference them, not once. Furthermore, just a few yours later, it's been announced that the 10 sailors have all been returned safely.
So much for demands, not trusting Iran, and anger.
But after the State of the Union Address, Steve Schmidt was, in some ways, even worse. At least I could understand his concern about members of the U.S. military behind held by a foreign government. But afterwards, this normally even-handed, fairly-objective analyst brought up a separate issue in a way that was so imbalanced and almost-humorously unfair.
At one point, the space program had been brought up in the discussion, referencing Mr. Obama's point about when the Russians had launched Sputnik, and President Kennedy didn't pretend it wasn't up there, and invigorated American efforts, and a decade later, we were on the moon. Mr. Schmidt made mention of this by saying how ironic it was that the space program had pretty much been shut down under President Obama.
The others on the panel were speechless for a moment, until Rachel Maddow almost laughingly (literally) said, "You're not blaming that the president, are you???" Her unstated point being clear that Republican efforts to trim the budget to almost nothing except defense was at the heart of such cutbacks. And Steve Schmidt spat out, "It happened during his presidency." By the way, Ms. Maddow had a bewildered, but impish look on her face, and wasn't going to let him get away with it, and then with a big smile on her face sort of chuckled something like, "Well then, will you at least give the president credit for the growth in the private space industry, because that happened during his Administration, too?!!" And it seemed like she was sure the usually fair-minded Schmidt would at least acknowledge that, but...instead he said, "No," and tried to explain that that was different in some incomprehensible way. It was so outlandish that the other panelist seemed to figure he was his own worst enemy at that moment and let him go on.
The entire exchange by Schmidt on every level was so unfair and unbalanced -- not to mention almost humorously ludicrous, let alone near-childish -- that you felt you were watching a different person. Or watching "Fox News." There was more offbeat with Mr. Schmidt during the coverage, whose jaw seemed clenched much of the time, but those were the two biggest Yipes moments that most leaped out. Combined with his earlier wanting to raise a minor international mistake (that got quickly and safely resolved) into the brink of war made you wonder what on earth was going on?? Was he just having a bad day? Was he moving back into Presidential Strategist Mode, now that there was a campaign underway? Had Donald Trump's lead in the GOP polls so unraveled him? Was he auditioned to move to Fox? Or...what?
I have no idea, but it was a very different, odd, angry, unfair, thoughtless Steve Schmidt -- unlike the wonderful, serious-minded analyst he's been. Here's hoping he returns. We'll see.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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