Alone among friends and family, I feel sorry for John McCain. I don’t excuse his poor choices but I cringe for what he has become and the promise that he and his advisors have squandered.
In the spring, when it was clear who was left standing, I was certain that Barack Obama would win come November 4. Why? First, because it was going to be damn difficult for any Republican to win in 2008, following years of mismanagement by the Bush Administration. But second, and specific to John McCain as a candidate, I was certain that—someway, somehow—his campaign would implode. I had vague visions of McCain, for example, losing his temper in public or being unable to contain his contempt for an opponent who challenged him.
Certainly, those things have happened, but they are not why McCain’s campaign collapsed. McCain’s campaign began its downward spiral to certain death when its top advisors convinced John McCain that the only way he could win was by tacking right rather than center in the final months of the campaign. In this, McCain was ill-served by his advisors, yes, the very ones he chose to hire and listen to.
The promise in tacking right is simple: it would energize the ‘base’, ensuring that a bloc of voters would get out and vote when they might otherwise take a pass on the election. But the problems in going right are substantial. First, George Bush did not win the last two elections solely by securing the ‘base’: he won two elections by combining strong support from the base with other factions including fiscal conservatives who are now justifiably skeptical of the Republican Party. McCain and his advisors got it wrong: Alone, the base cannot win an election for the Republicans, and this is only going to become a more acute problem in future elections as the racial and ethnic demographics of the US are transformed.
More importantly, however, was the problem of finding a candidate who met two criteria: broadening the appeal of John McCain and appealing to the base. I can see what McCain’s advisors were thinking: “Find a conservative woman to put on the ticket, and that will broaden his appeal and get the evangelical Christian vote out!”
[Footnote: I never believed that Sarah Palin would appeal to Democratic women who had supported Hillary Clinton. Seriously, Republican strategists need to get out a little more: visit with women outside their immediate circles. Then dare to presume that they can predict how women will view a particular candidate.]
Turns out, however, a qualified, socially conservative, Republican woman candidate is a myth. The Republican Party’s best options – any of a number of women senators – share an irreparable flaw: they are not, as it turns out, sufficiently conservative to meet the needs of this strategy. In particular, on the abortion continuum, they tend towards choice. This, by the way, indicates a significant flaw in the infrastructure of the Republican Party: it espouses a platform of social policies that its most prominent women do not support. Go figure.
So instead of choosing the candidate with whom he was most comfortable – Democrat Joe Lieberman, of the self-imposed political exile – McCain caved to party pressure and acquiesced to the bad advice from his campaign: He chose Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, to be his running mate. Instead of waging a likely bloody and public fight to get Lieberman through the Republican convention, McCain gave up on his vision of reforming the Republican Party and advancing a new way of doing politics. Who knows? Perhaps he decided to do what his party and advisors thought it would take to win this election, hoping to get back to the reforming after he won the election.
But his choice of Palin as running mate backed him into a corner he cannot escape. His campaign, rooted in the premise that experience and judgment matter, botched its most important, most visible decision, the one decision for which there is no do-over: He selected an inexperienced and, now it is apparent, ill-prepared running mate.
After that, what is left of his campaign? He can, unconscionably in my view, defend the qualifications of his running mate; few are buying it. He can try to talk on the issues; the historical context, especially an epic financial meltdown, is not on his side, however, and his running mate offers no buttressing, no insight and no cover. Or he can tear down his opponent; anyone beyond his base finds that distasteful.
Make no mistake: my pity does not lead me to excuse the failings of this campaign. There is no excuse for the anointing of Sarah Palin as emissary to the base: she is unqualified to be Vice President, nay, hardly seems to understand what the job entails, and shows no promise that she can learn the substance necessary to be a national leader.
The divisiveness of the McCain campaign has been stunning, especially in stark contrast with the inclusiveness of Obama’s message. According to Republicans, there’s ‘us’ and there’s ‘them’, and ‘them’s the problem.’ Well, ‘them’ is the problem: the distaste for such discourse among many independent voters, and the ever-growing size of ‘them’ compared to McCain’s steadily shrinking ‘us’.
I have heard that campaign manager Steve Schmidt does not plan to run another presidential campaign. What a relief: that is blessed insurance against the dwindling chances that anyone would be foolish enough to ask. The advisors to McCain’s campaign have made a ruin of things: they did not have a good starting point, but instead of going high, with dignity and respect for themselves and the voters, they went low. And, for the most mundane of reasons -- personal ambition, disdain for an opponent -- John McCain went along.
Nonetheless, I pity John McCain: The historical context is against him, he was ill-served by his closest aides and his ambition got the best of him. It has been painful to watch the final, tragic act in the political life of a man who showed significant independence and promise.