After a general election it is common to ask the question: "How did the losing candidate go wrong?" We often see a myriad of studies and opinions given. I find all of this more than curious since someone always loses an election when there is more than one candidate. The person who loses may have really done very well but the pundits insist there had to be some blame to place on the loser's campaign and party. In the case of John McCain he actually did not do badly in a very hard year for Republican candidates.
For starters we should be very clear about this much. There was no Republican candidate who could have won this election, period. Second, the economic collapse blew up every real chance McCain had to win. He was leading in all the polls in late September and then the crisis hit big time. He never led again. Never has an election taken place right in the middle of a major economic meltdown, now seen as the biggest Wall Street decline since the Great Depression. Add to this the fact that the outgoing president represented the lowest poll numbers for approval in polling history and you have the perfect storm for the Democrats to easily roll to victory in November.
In spite of all of this John McCain actually did reasonably well. The fact is that he did much better than almost anyone else in his party in terms of this unique election. He out-polled his parties numbers across the board. So was the problem the party or the man at the top? The answer to this is more complicated than it may seem and raises a great deal of debate. I have my own opinion. I think it was more the party than the candidate but many conservatives resolutely disagree with me.
1. McCain's campaign problems included a failure to settle on a consistent message. He originally ran on his record with regard to Iraq but the war became a non-issue by fall, except for about 10% of the voters. A year before the election he was clearly right to believe that his political courage regarding the surge could win it all for him. It did gain him the nomination, at least as much as any single issue. But as the context shifted he was unprepared to run a campaign on the economy and to deliver a clear message about what he would do differently than Bush and his party. Remember, in the primaries McCain had once said he did not know much about the economy. That really hurt him over the long haul.
2. McCain can be aggressive, especially about things he really believes, but he found it hard to be aggressive in this race. His big issue was muted. When he became more aggressive he sounded mean and angry. Maybe his age and manner of speaking both hurt him. He is not a great public speaker and against Obama it really showed. Obama was in control and unflappable in his manner throughout. He ran a highly disciplined campaign and had so much money that he could do almost anything he wanted to do to win. In all three debates Obama came across as more likable and human. McCain seemed to lecture and not have real human appeal. (He has an incredible sense of humor but no one saw it unless you saw the Al Smith Dinner on cable television!) One should recall that Bush was the more likable person in the 2000 election and eventually won even though Al Gore had the experience and the broader support. Who can forget Gore lecturing Bush in one of the debates?
3. Obama successfully linked John McCain to President Bush. No Republican could have avoided this linkage unless they came from Mars, or somewhere clearly as far away from Washington as possible. For McCain, being a long-term U. S. senator hurt him much more than it helped him. Obama, with only four years in Washington, was the outsider. Clinton was the outsider in 1992 and Bush in 2000.
4. McCain became the last man standing in the primaries. We saw a glimpse of his fighting spirit and courage. I was inspired by it myself. He had refused to give up and won in New Hampshire when everyone thought he was dead. This will always stand out to me, as a political junkie of sorts, as "McCain's greatest moment" in this race. He had fired his staff, cut his budget and was totally written off. In the fall of 2007 he was 13th on the list of candidates in the Iowa straw poll. Dead last.
5. McCain presided over a party that one can, and I think should, call dysfunctional. One liberal commentator says it was "on the verge of civil war." I do not think this is too far from the truth. The divisions between the cultural conservatives, the tax cutters and the foreign policy hard-liners are very real. And within each faction there are other factions. McCain has a history of doing battle with factions and this was both his strength and became his huge weakness. He had to make peace with the very party he had run against for so long. I am sure the Christian Right never felt thrilled with John McCain and it showed in the end. The number of such conservative voters dropped from 2004 as McCain refused to run on issues like marriage amendments and embryonic stem cell research. (He was very clear, and always has been, on the issue of abortion!)
One example stood out to me from the beginning. McCain supported a bipartisan immigration reform plan that was very close to the views of President Bush and Ted Kennedy. The conservatives in his own party despised him for this. Once he began to run seriously he had to shift toward "building the fence." And the deficit hawk of the senate also had to endorse the Bush tax cuts when he had first opposed them. These moves worked in the primaries. Did they work in the general election? Some would say yes. I am not so sure. McCain the independent looked more and more like Bush III.
After winning the primary the old John McCain talked about poverty and Hurricane Katrina. He even visited the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Montgomery and stopped in Memphis and said he was wrong about originally opposing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. He really meant it. But the party, and the campaign, believed he had to be pushed further to the right, toward the various factions. (Enter Sarah Palin, a subject I do not wish to engage at this point. I wish he had chosen Joe Lieberman myself.) The result was that the McCain who ran in September-October was not the McCain who had always been the "real" John McCain.
I will admit, now that the whole election is thankfully over, that the old John McCain was the one I voted for in the 2000 primary. I wish he had won then rather than George W. Bush. I think we would have been a different nation in 2008. And I admit that I would like to see the Republican Party less driven by all these factions, especially the ones represented by so many of the conservative pundits and talk show hosts.(Michael Medved, alone, still keeps my respect as a talk show host!)
McCain finally took a darker turn, in the general election, and began to attack Obama. It is right to say, however, that non-partisan groups clearly saw more of this "attack mode" on Obama's side than on McCain's even though many wrote about McCain's negativity. This approach was not one John McCain was comfortable with at all. The proof, I believe, was in that moment in Ohio when people in the crowd yelled out against Obama and his "radicalism" and McCain stopped speaking and chastised the person for the meanness of this unfair approach. Some saw this as the end. I saw it as the "real" John McCain; decent, civil and respectful of his opponent.
Many always felt that getting the nomination would be the hard part for John McCain. I was one of those. This was clearly proved wrong. The hard part was running as a Republican once he secured the nomination. This party is in trouble and most know it. But the Democrats were in real trouble in 2004. Things do change.
One final word. I heard Governor Mike Huckabee, who has come to impress me very profoundly the longer I have listened to him, say last night that all the names being floated right now as possible candidates for 2012 will not be the real candidates when the time comes. He cited all the names mentioned in both parties in 2004 and not one of them was remotely close to being a serious candidate in 2008. For the life of me I cannot understand why even the most serious political junkies would even begin to think about 2012 right now. I am glad this perpetual season of campaigning is finally over. Somehow I wish we could shorten this non-stop campaign stuff. It seems to me that it works against us ever being e pluribus unum in a deeply felt sense.
The greatness of our nation can still be seen in this: We survived another election. We will change leaders in January. And not one drop of blood will be shed. We can surely give thanks for this historical reality. This is a truly great nation. We are flawed, we have committed acts that are reprehensible and egregious, indeed immoral. But we are still the greatest experiment in freedom ever conceived by mankind. We have done bad things but we are fundamentally a good nation, not an evil empire. If this election does not demonstrate this then I do not know what else to say to try to convince you.