McCain’s Waterloo

I was a strong supporter of Republican John McCain when he first ran for the presidency in 2000. I felt then that he would help the GOP rebound from its wilderness years during the Clinton era & that he would help to expand the Republican base in a fashion similar to his own political heroes: Teddy Roosevelt & Ronald Reagan. I thought that his ability to reach across the aisle would help the country step back from its bitter partisanship & that he would conduct a strong yet respectful foreign policy which would mark him as a statesman. I wasn’t crazy about George W. Bush & I especially disliked his so-called “compassionate conservatism.” I supported Bush after he beat McCain but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt the GOP nominated the wrong man but like a good soldier I did what I could to avoid having Al Gore become our next president. Imagine how different things would’ve been today had McCain won in 2000!

McCain’s decision to run for office in 2008 generated mixed feelings within me. Part of me was glad to see him back – especially when measured against the likes of Mitt Romney. However, things change over the course of eight years. McCain’s penchant for playing the part of “maverick” led him to cast voters that turned me off – especially the passage of McCain-Feingold, which placed considerable restrictions on First Amendment rights pertaining to free speech. He was a lot older & he seemed to be off his game in some instances during the campaign (which in itself was on life support prior to the NH primary). McCain’s debates with Obama were painful to watch too. In spite of my hopes for a miracle, Obama beat McCain.

This year was touted as the “Year of the Democrat” & the argument has been made that nothing McCain – or ANY Republican for that matter – could’ve done to beat back the inevitable tides of history as they washed upon our country. I’m not a fatalist so I never bought that rationale. However, I think aspects of the McCain candidacy ultimately doomed the GOP’s chances of winning the White House this year. Those aspects need to be honestly examined by Republicans as they ponder their future in the wilderness once again.

McCain Had No General Election Strategy

GOP consultant Todd Domke was right when he wrote in the Boston Globe (11-1-08) that “(McCain’s) campaign fought tactically day to day, but failed to develop a coherent strategy and consistent message. Months ago, after securing the GOP nomination while Obama was still fighting Clinton, the McCain campaign had an opportunity to create and promote a reform platform. He could have emphasized positive solutions so, later, when he had to make the case against Obama, he wouldn’t seem mean or desperate. Instead, he zigged, zagged, and lagged.” Obama was brilliant in this regard & his team created a sense of excitement about the possibilities of an Obama presidency. Given the fact that this was a “change” election, a vision of the future & a few practical examples of how to get there were imperative for McCain to articulate. His failure to effectively do so contributed to his defeat.

Team McCain’s Mismanagement Of Sarah Palin Tarnished Her

Many people will argue between themselves on whether or not McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin helped or hurt his campaign. McCain’s selection of Palin was inspired: it rallied his GOP base (which till then was not excited about McCain himself), it helped to burnish McCain’s credentials not only as a “maverick” but as part of a “change” team that had its own claims of historical “firsts,” & the excitement she engendered boosted McCain’s prospects for November. Unfortunately, Team McCain decided (for whatever reasons) to keep Palin under wraps & failed to prepare her for the full glare of national/international attention. Of the four debates, the one with Palin was the best but that’s because the force of her personality wasn’t as circumscribed as it had been when she was interviewed by Gibson & Couric. Also, Team McCain’s advice that Palin play the traditional VP role of attack dog was a huge mistake in that it wasn’t a good fit for Palin’s persona & (because it wasn’t) it created – if not reinforced – a negative stereotype of her as a shallow person. Social conservatives viewed her as a kindred spirit & defended her fiercely but once the negative persona solidified itself in the public mind, her positives sank like a stone – particularly among unenrolleds.

A Campaign Based On Biography Has Its Limits

Both McCain & Obama had compelling stories to tell & both of them utilized their respective biographies very well. However, Obama was smart enough to keep the campaign’s focus on a future of “change” designed to be a sharp break from the “eight years of failure” that had been the Democrat meme of the Bush years. Obama’s declaration that “we are the change we’ve been waiting for” was a clever way to give the voters the feeling that they had a hand in shaping history & that Obama regarded himself as merely a vessel to help said voters help themselves. While McCain often talked about “service above self” & was often eloquent on the topic, his go-it-alone approach (support for the surge, for example) struck too many people as uncomfortably similar to the “cowboy” persona of the hated Bush. This allowed the Obama campaign to easily mock the prospects of a McCain presidency as “Bush’s third term” & more often than not make the charge stick. This produced in McCain a defensiveness (especially in the debates) that made him look weak & allowed Obama to look “presidential.”

McCain’s Decision To Support The $700 Billion Bailout

It was obvious that the meltdown of the financial markets hit McCain’s campaign hard. What made the event fatal for his candidacy was his erratic behavior wherein McCain declared a suspension of his campaign (which came across as a gimmick) & his decision to support the bailout. His vote to do so aligned himself to a Bush initiative that was despised by the public (thus sacrificing his “maverick” meme) & hurt him deeply with the economic conservatives. Obama signed off too but did so with the cool detachment of a level-headed leader. Had McCain resisted signing off until better checks & balances were in place, he might’ve displayed the kind of leadership his campaign had touted as necessary for the next US President.

The Karma Of McCain’s Maverick Ways Came Back To Haunt Him

A business entrepreneur can be a maverick & thrive but a maverick attempting to run a corporation usually ends in disaster because the executive role in a corporate setting places different sets of demands on a leader than does a small start-up. Such was the problem with McCain. Another problem along the same lines was the fact that some of his legislative achievements – like campaign finance reform – came back to haunt him. Obama’s decision to abjure public money (along with its inherent restraints) has helped to kill any future financing of presidential elections. For McCain, his adherence to the letter of the law he helped to create paradoxically helped to kill the spirit of his candidacy.

I’m sure there were other contributing factors to the demise of the McCain candidacy but the aforementioned reasons listed struck me as the most significant. Republicans can – & should – learn a lot from Obama’s brilliant, pathbreaking campaign. But the GOP should also learn from the failure of John McCain if it wants to win the presidency in 2012.

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