Friday, November 07, 2008

McCain's Campaign Failed, Because....

The right hand didn't know what the right hand was doing?

Take it from Charles Krauthammer: Sarah Palin was a huge mistake.
Palin was a mistake ("near suicidal," I wrote on the day of her selection) because she completely undercut McCain's principal case against Obama: his inexperience and unreadiness to lead. And her nomination not only intellectually undermined the readiness argument. It also changed the election dynamic by shifting attention, for days on end, to Palin's preparedness, fitness and experience -- and away from Obama's.

McCain thought he could steal from Obama the "change" issue by running a Two Mavericks campaign. A fool's errand from the very beginning. It defied logic for the incumbent-party candidate to try to take "change" away from the opposition. Election Day exit polls bore that out with a vengeance. Voters seeking the "change candidate" went 89 to 9 for Obama.
No, take it from Pat Buchanan: Sarah Palin is our hero and savior, and perhaps the second coming of, er, Reagan?
Yet by Sept. 10, McCain, thanks to Sarah Palin, whose selection had proven a sensation, had come from eight points behind to take the lead, and Joe Biden was wailing that maybe Hillary would have been a better choice for Obama.
I disagree with both of them, to some degree. Krauthammer exaggerates the import of Palin, and continues to overestimate the "he lacks experience" theme that by the time McCain chose Palin no longer seemed to be resonating with the public. Look at the polls before and after the convention/Palin bubble - McCain was losing on the experience argument. That's not to say it isn't a good argument or a relevant issue, but McCain's campaign apparently recognized that if they didn't introduce a "game changer" they were going to lose. McCain's choice of Palin left conservative elites like Krauthammer tied up in knots, but she was red meat to Pat Buchanan. Palin energized the religious right and helped McCain ensure their turn-out, and provided him with the ability to launch scurrilous attacks on Obama by proxy. In the weeks leading up to the election did you see Obama's support increase? No, it held steady while McCain's support increased - wavering Republicans returned to the fold.

But Palin turned out to be something well short of a net positive. Her lack of experience wasn't so much the issue as her poor performance. That, coupled with the economic crisis, hurt McCain, because it suggested that he lacked judgment. Krauthammer implies that McCain's post-convention/Palin bounce reflected a permanent advantage,
Then Lehman collapsed, and the financial system went off a cliff.

This was not just a meltdown but a panic. For an agonizing few days, there was a collapse of faith in the entire financial system - a run on banks, panicky money-market withdrawals, flights to safety, the impulse to hide one's savings under a mattress.

This did not just have the obvious effect of turning people against the incumbent party, however great or tenuous its responsibility for the crisis. It had the more profound effect of making people seek shelter in government.
Seriously? So Krauthammer is bucking the trend among right-wing pundits and is arguing that the election result gives Obama not only a mandate for massive change, but a mandate to impose socialism? He doesn't like Sarah Palin, but he's clearly been sipping her Kool-Aid. Odd as it seems to say this, for a more rational perspective (albeit one that doesn't survive past the end of the paragraph) let's turn back to Buchanan:
Then came the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bailout of AIG, McCain’s assertion that the economy was fundamentally sound, and his panicked return to Washington to assist Bush and Hank Paulson push through a wildly unpopular bank bailout - using 700 billion in tax dollars to buy up rubbish paper the idiot bankers had put on their books.
Right up to the point of the collapse, McCain was repeating the mantra, "The fundamentals of the economy are strong." Right up to the point of the collapse, his campaign was dispatching its proxies to savage Obama's economic proposals, to call Obama naive, and to ridicule comparisons between our present financial situation and the great depression. Reality intervened, and how did McCain respond? By trying to convince the people that when he said, "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" he actually meant, "American workers are strong", and then fumbling a suspension of his campaign such that he simultaneously looked manipulative, disingenuous and inept.

How did Palin then hurt him? Not by being inexperienced, and certainly not in her appeal to "the base", but by appearing to undecided voters as further evidence of bad judgment - like the supposed suspension of his campaign, the Palin choice appeared at best to be a cynical manipulation that, despite the McCain camp's spin, put campaign ahead of country. McCain's defense of his choices wasn't "straight talk", and it wasn't mavericky - it was sad and disappointing. He wedded himself to G.W. not so much by his voting record and policy choices, but by his refusal to concede even obvious mistakes and his insistence that his mistakes were in fact good choices.

I'll grant that he couldn't exactly say, "I regret my choice of Sarah Palin" - and it isn't clear that he should have regrets, given that Palin largely did her job by energizing evangelical voters and social conservatives - and perhaps he had dug himself too deep a hole with statements reflecting himself as out-of-touch with the economy, but he didn't have to demean himself or to try to advance lines that, simply put, are ridiculous. Nobody with an ounce of sense is going to believe that living near Russia translates into having foreign policy experience. And if you're going to claim that somebody "understands the energy issues better than anybody I know in Washington, D.C.," you had best make sure she's not going to turn around and stick her foot into her mouth. Repeatedly.

Buchanan believes that McCain could have won the election by acting more like Palin - attacking gay rights, advancing a rigid, pro-life agenda, attacking Obama as supposedly wanting to eliminate any restrictions on abortion, smearing Obama with tales of his association with Ayers and Wright, etc. - I don't think that would have worked, and in fact it might have hurt. There's a reason that the McCain campaign happily launched that brand of attack through Palin, while trying to keep McCain himself above the fray, and my guess is that it's because their internal polling suggested that those attacks would hurt him with swing voters (not to mention demolishing the public perception that he's not hostile to abortion rights). What better evidence of this than Krauthammer's horror at Palin and everything she represents?

I personally would argue that what hurt McCain the most with swing voters was his overt efforts to appeal to the Buchananite/evangelical wing of the Republican Party. You can still easily find people who lament that they weren't able to vote for the McCain who ran in 2000, and how they wished that guy had been in the race. That guy apparently concluded early on that he couldn't win his party's nomination without making serious concessions to religious and social conservatives, and apparently later concluded (probably correctly) that it was more important to "turn out the base" - have those reliably Republican voters come out and support him on election day - than to try to hold or win over the middle. Krauthammer writes,
McCain thought he could steal from Obama the "change" issue by running a Two Mavericks campaign. A fool's errand from the very beginning.
But he misses the point that the leading factor, and perhaps the only factor, that made McCain a serious contender in the race was the distance he had historically emphasized between his own positions and those of the Republican Party. Whether you believe that to be reality or myth, that McCain - the McCain of 2000 - could legitimately declare himself a candidate of change. The reminted McCain running in 2008 could not. And he lost.
Update (via

1 comment:

  1. Aaron, sad but so true. Everything that made McCain so popular to me was always his downfall with the mainstay of the party. When he subscribed to the Nixon approach (need the conservatives to get nominated), they spelled for a big problem in the general election when things got so bad. Too bad because he probably would have been more pragmatic than people would give him credit for.