“The newspaper reader says: this party destroys itself by making such a mistake. My higher politics says: a party which makes such mistakes has reached its end; it has lost its sureness of instinct.” – Nietzsche
With all due respect to Mr. Nietzsche, I’m about to point out the key reasons why I believe McCain lost this election. But I don’t wholly disagree with the quote — insofar as the Republican Party will live on in name, it’s not at its end. However, the party as it currently stands is in major need of an overhaul and a smart party needs to re-tool after every major loss. The Democrats didn’t after 2000 and got whupped in 2004. If the Republicans don’t, they’re going to find 2012 very painful (a sure way to further self-destruct: nominate Palin).
So, the three major reasons McCain lost big on 11/4/08:
1. McCain was unable to control his own campaign. His campaign was basically split, divided over whether to be Maverick McCain or Bushie McCain. The former faction is represented by Mark Salter and wanted to run McCain version 2000. The other side is represented by Steve Schmidt and wanted to run McCain 2.0, ie be Karl Rove to George Bush. McCain’s own impulsiveness meant he swung wildly from one to the other, opting for wild gambles (Exhibit A: Palin; Exhibit B: bailout grandstanding) instead of consistent and thorough campaigning. In the end, the McCain we got was a bizarre mixture of these two factions: in name (read: branding), we got Maverick McCain. In deed, we got Bushie McCain. The McCain we all thought would show up for this election, ie the one we saw years ago, never materialized. With only a quarter of Americans approving of Bush, coming off as an angrier Dubya did not help the Arizona senator.
This inability to run his own campaign also shows up in the bizarre change of message mid-game. Whatever you think of the intelligibility of these arguments, a CHANGE vs. EXPERIENCE battle makes a whole lot of sense. Pit the Jr. Senator from Illinois against the Senator from Arizona who’s been in D.C. since, seemingly, 1901. This seems like such an obvious match-up. So McCain pitches this battle, gets it to start sticking, and then decides in August/September to change message. Now he goes for Maverick, for Reform, for Change. Problem is, Mr. Obama’s been drilling home for 18 months that he’s the candidate of change. So we suddenly get CHANGE vs. CHANGE. Whether fairly or not, this is how it works: you will never look like the embodiment of “change” if you’re an angry old white dude running against an eloquent young black man.
2. McCain pandered to the far right. Since the far right in the GOP is essentially the “Religious Right,” his mistake lies there. Thus we find the same man who repudiated Falwell & Co. in 2000 decides, beginning in 2006, to cozy right on up. This, in my opinion, drastically mis-read the mood of Evangelicalism. The people committed to the marriage of the GOP and the Evangelical church were going to oppose the Democratic candidate no matter what. Yet in the 8 years since their powers peaked in 2008, the Religious Right has experienced a significant backlash. And by “significant” I mean actually-very-tiny comparatively, but I think it was a enough to make a difference. Amy Sullivan is one journalist who’s written extensively about this, and the Obama camp saw the trend from a mile away. They actively courted the Christian vote in a way that’s been historically uncharacteristic of the DNC. Whether it was a true shifting of parties or merely momentary (Bush soured many on the whole “elect-an-Evangelical-and-everything-will-be-awesome” thing) is perhaps still up in the air. The ultimate act of pandering, of course, was selecting Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate….
3. McCain picked Palin. I don’t think this can be over-stated. McCain spoke a total of something like 70 minutes with Palin before selecting her as his VP choice. By the end, we’re told, the two camps were still barely speaking (anecdotal: note, near the end of this thing, how many times McCain made appearances with Cindy and Joe Lieberman, not Palin). The McCain camp was right to realize the need to “energize the base.” And Palin did just that. But “the base,” by virtue of being the base, was already going to vote for McCain anyway. After Palin, they just got more excited about it. Rather than opt out, millions of Christians would’ve reluctantly voted Republican even if the VP choice was less than desirable; they’d whine and moan but still cast their ballot for McCain. So it energized people who were already decidedly Republican, but alienated independents and moderate Republicans/Democrats (fence-sitters). I’m quite sure that Palin convinced a few of these famed undecideds to swing Republican, but it seems clear that she pushed far more to Obama than she brought into the fold. The moderates were appalled by what was obvious to everyone except the Republican hardliners: the Palin pick was a crassly political manuever that thrust enormous responsibility on a woman wholly unprepared for it (let alone the vice presidency). The true believers on each side reacted predictably (outrage on the left, outpouring of love on the right) while the moderates saw through the ruse immediately and were generally insulted (not to mention the whole change-of-message swing that her pick required, as already discussed).
So there’s my three. Note, of course, that I tried to focus on why McCain lost the election, not why Obama won it. I realize those two are essentially inseparable, but it’s an inherent difficulty I felt like ignoring. Also, some of this comes from Newsweek‘s fantastic 40-page post-election insider’s scoop, written using confidential information only provided to Newsweek on the condition they only write about it after the election. Which they promptly did. The summary/highlights from all seven parts are provided here.