One of the unfortunate tendencies in presidential elections is to ascribe too much credit to the victor’s political strategists and to malign the loser’s strategists with too much blame. Past Democratic presidential nominees Al Gore and John Kerry are both belittled as wooden bores who couldn’t connect with America and couldn’t compete with the genius of Republican strategist Karl Rove. But, of course, more voters chose Al Gore and his sighs than George Bush and his good ol’ boy charm. And the liberal flip-flopper from Massachusetts came within a few hundred thousand votes in Ohio from taking down an incumbent president in wartime.
That is to say, not everything Republican nominee John McCain did in this election was politically wrong, and not everything Democratic nominee Barack Obama did was wise. But while McCain may never have been able to defeat Obama in such a hostile environment, his strategists did err in several key decisions. Here’s my assessment of his campaign.
The word on McCain had long been that he was better suited for a general election race than the Republican primary. His carefully cultivated maverick brand made independents swoon and journalists gush. Liberals like Jon Stewart wanted to book him, lesser politicians wanted to be him. And McCain gave it all away.
Initially his hard-right conversion was shrugged off as predictable primary politicking. Making up with Jerry Falwell was probably smart. But then he voted against banning torture. And then he changed his mind on Bush’s tax cuts. And then he said he would vote against his own immigration bill. All of this may have been necessary to win the Republican nomination - but he never returned to the center for the general election. McCain courted the Republican base in a year in which the base would never be big enough to deliver the White House. He gambled that if he didn’t tend to evangelicals, they would stay home. He should have known that if he didn’t pursue moderates, they would go home ... with Obama signs.
When McCain chose his running mate, he understood that he had to make a Hail Mary, game-changing pick. The choice of a woman with executive experience wasn’t a bad idea. But the choice of someone incompetent was. With that one decision, McCain undermined his entire theme of experience and “country first.”
Finally, McCain was right to go negative against Obama early and often. His only chance was to make the election a referendum on Obama’s inexperience. And McCain did pursue Karl Rove’s one genius strategy of turning the opponent’s strength - in this case, Obama’s colossal crowds and soaring oratory - into a weakness.
But McCain’s attacks didn’t work for two reasons. First, Obama never took the bait. While Gore and Kerry got stuck playing defense after every attack, Obama recognized that his huge crowds were a part of the emotional appeal of his campaign and fed the sense that it was more than a one-time appeal for votes - it was and is a movement.
Second, McCain’s attacks were never credible. Half the time they were just silly. Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Moses? There was a better way to make the point. And the manufactured outrage over sex education for kindergarteners and lipstick on a pig demeaned McCain’s whole campaign. Meanwhile, when McCain’s attacks weren’t foolish, they were vicious. It was beneath the dignity of a presidential campaign to insinuate that Obama cavorts with terrorists or that he doesn’t know the “real America.” McCain has said he’d rather lose a campaign than lose his honor - because of how he chose to run, he’s going to end up losing both.