Thursday, November 06, 2008

What Might Have Been For McCain

I haven't settled down enough yet to write about what an Obama presidency means to me (and it means quite a lot) but I do want to say this: I'm surprised by how much I've been thinking about "what might have been" with regard to John McCain.

Surely I've written before about my admiration of McCain. In 2000 I thought he was a far more worthy candidate than Bush and, if not for the political dirty tricks of Rove, I could very well be saying good bye to the eight year reign of a president I voted for twice.

McCain ran a straight campaign in the 2000 primaries... he was honest about who he was and what he stood for and he didn't grovel for the christianist vote. He had that mavericky image for bucking his own party, which didn't endear him to the elders but did represent a sort of independent thinking. The press loved him for all of these things because he made good story but the GOP itself, alas, was not a fan. He was one small step away from being regarded with all of the current contempt of a Jeffords or a Chafee.

Fast forward to 2008.

This time McCain knew he needed to get the fundies onboard in the primaries, especially running against such christianist favs like Huckabee and Brownback. He repositioned himself on social issues (God, gays, and abortion), reversals he attributed to a recent "epiphany" (the epiphany being a decision to do whatever it took to win, I assume). He openly courted christianist bullies leaders like James Dobson.

McCain managed to slip through the primaries under the radar, basically outlasting the other candidates whose passionate support was scattered widely among the base (i.e. a Thompson supporter was definitely not a Brownback supporter, and a Romney supporter was definitely not a Huckabee supporter). McCain exited the primaries relatively unscathed... and then for months he had a front row seat to watch the top Dem candidates land punches on each other. It should have been a good start to the general election.

The problem for McCain was that he still had the same basic reputation he had in 2000. The party elders didn't trust him and the base didn't like him. They liked him better than Obama or Hillary, of course, but they didn't like him enough to volunteer their time and money. Facing an enthusiasm gap, and without the money and volunteers that come with supporter enthusiasm, McCain was looking a bit like a lame horse out of the gate.

Enter Sarah Palin and the great Hail Mary. Seeing opportunity in the disenchanted PUMA crowd, McCain made a few feeble attempts to win them over. Fixating on the idea of using a running mate to generate the enthusiasm he couldn't achieve on his own, handpicked Neocon apprentice Sarah Palin must have seemed perfect for the job: young, female, sassy, sexy, impeccable christianist creds, "outsider", and best of all, backed by the full faith and credit of one Mr William Kristol.

And there, I think, is where McCain did himself the most damage. In theory Palin was a good play but in practice she was a disaster.

Palin delighted Republicans at the convention with her ability to deliver blistering Democratic mockery. It seemed like the entire GOP had a collective 2004 flashback orgasm. The christianist wingers were particularly delighted by the choice since, despite McCain's best attempts to portray himself as born-again, the fundies never quite believed him. And perhaps most importantly, in a year when Democrats were openly passionate about both of their top candidates, the Republicans were desperate for a little O-factor of their own. McPalin was suddenly the belle of the ball.

And then the rain came.

Despite grumblings to the contrary, there was no "gotcha" journalism in exposing Palin's intellectual and educational weakness. The press was doing what the press is supposed to do, they were vetting an unknown candidate. People seem to have forgetten that the press (and Hillary/McCain operatives) had vetted Obama thoroughly over 23 months... he did countless interviews and press events, including EIGHT interviews on Fox alone. You cannot run for public office and not let people poke at you... it's how we the public find out what you're made of. Shame on Palin supporters to insist we should buy a carefully crafted image. The simple truth is that you can't hide ignorance, not when it's in plain view of an entire nation. Spunky Sarah Palin might have gotten by on novelty alone in more prosperous times but with two active wars and an economy on the brink of implosion, serious conservatives were in no mood to humor her.

The selection of Sarah Palin also meant that McCain immediately lost his most compelling argument against Obama: experience. McCain might have pulled off the election if he'd been able to comparatively hammer away at Obama's inexperience instead of defending Palin's ("I can see Russia from my house!"). A lost opportunity.

Would McCain have fared better with someone unquestionably qualified like, say, Kay Bailey Hutchison? Maybe. I think McCain was in an awfully difficult situation here, though... Hutchison would have carried tremendous appeal among women, moderates, and independents --however -- McCain was still in dire need of getting that base out there working for him. In the end, he chose to move right instead of center. Palin did what she was meant to do (excite the base) but the numbers show that she cost him the center and, as goes the center, so goes the election. She's the Howard Dean of the GOP.

Another course changer was, I think, the economy. In what was perhaps the most freakish coincidence I have ever seen, McCain started his "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" campaign at almost the precise moment the economy started to implode. Clearly McCain's strategy was to begin neutralizing Obama's natural strength, the economy, by making it a non-issue. Moving the discussion away from economics and onto foreign policy, his particular strength, would have given him an advantage. No sooner did he begin this play, though, on the exact day he dispatched adviser Donald Luskin to publicly ridicule the Dems in the Washington Post for their economic pessimism, the financial meltdown launched itself into public awareness. Timing is everything, they say.

A frustrated McCain began injecting radical negativity into the campaign, hurling the kind of crazy rhetoric and invective that quickly becomes a story unto itself. I'm not sure McCain intended it to get as crazy as it got -- the press kept insisting it couldn't be McCain's idea, that McCain himself was "not like that". That may be true, for by all accounts McCain refused to enter Pastor Wright territory until the last few desperate days of the election. As I think about the way it rolled out I'm almost convinced McCain lost control of his message to the echo chamber that is Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Drudge Report. Instead of helping McCain, they simply drowned him out.

Regardless of what McCain did or didn't intend in impugning the Americaness of Obama, I think the whole thing started to wear pretty thin on a public more focused on their 401Ks.

In this it seems McCain fell into the same death trap Kerry fell into in 2004, which is to say he made his theme about running against someone instead of running for something. While appeasing the base (Bush bashing, anyone?), it does almost nothing to attract the middle and actually starts to sound whiny and melodramatic and slanderous after a while. By the time McCain found a real message -- accidentally, from Joe the Plumber -- it was a day late and several dollars short.

Given the fact that he was running against a heretofore unknown black man, I think McCain might have stood a pretty good chance of winning if he'd made a more serious running mate selection and found a more consistent, positive message.

As an aside...
I'm the last one to give the Republican party any advice but I think they're suffering the same malady the Dems suffered in 2000 and 2004. The base is passionately insisting the party needs to need to move further away from the center but that's a position that doesn't hold with the majority of Americans. The Republicans are looking at a similarly long journey in the wilderness if they decide to let the base rule their heads.

Obama saved the Dem base from themselves by leading them to the center so slowly they didn't even realize it was happening until they'd already bought in. It's funny that most people don't know how soundly the base rejected Obama when he first appeared on the scene. I remember the day Obama made a single tentative post on Daily Kos back in 2006 to try to explain a vote he'd made that had enraged them. He got pummeled (irrationally, IMO). He never came back to dkos after that... I don't think he ever intended to pander to the base. In the end he won them over with his electability... because, for everything the Dem base aspires to achieve, losing another election isn't one of them.

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