Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why McCain Lost

The dust has settled now as the crash of the Presidency of George W. Bush is complete. Barack Obama now stands on the precipice of fulfilling Martin Luther King's dream for African-Americans on January 20, 2009 - the day he and Bush will shake hands as Obama ascends to the podium and takes the oath of office as America's first black President. But before moving onto the future we must look at the recent past and answer the question: "Why did John McCain lose the 2008 election?" For most of the analyses of this question will likely miss the point.

It is an assumption in the political community that if a candidate loses a race - esp. a race for the Presidency - that the loser could have done something different to have changed the outcome in his favor. Richard Nixon (1960) and Al Gore, in particular, have received endless abuse for what they failed to do despite running campaigns spectacular enough to just fall short. In coming years the question will probably not be why McCain lost but why he didn't lose much worse - and how much better he performed than recent Republican losers Bush 41 and Dole.

The reasons why McCain lost are many. Some are his own doing and some were outside events that he could not control. But all of them added up to his ultimate defeat.

1) The hunger of the Democrats for a victory.

2000 and 2004 had been the cruelest of fates for the Democrats. In both cases they narrowly lost elections that might well have beeen won with just one different decision made by the party standard bearer. A shift of only 60,000 votes in Ohio and about 300 in Florida in 2000 and the Democrats would be celebrating their fifth straight Presidential victory. They have instead lost twice and to an opponent they have long regarded as little more than a son of privilege, an upstart. Being out of power serves as a strong impetus to paper over differences and seek common ground within the party. The Republicans accomplished this well in 2000, and the Democrats emulated them this year. Nothing could have changed the simple fact that the Democrats were hungrier for victory than the Republicans, who were more hoping for a win to prevent an all-Left government.

2) The abysmal record of George W. Bush.

It is too soon to tell how history will view George W. Bush. Harry Truman was considered as big a disaster as Bush when he left office in 1953. But time and new perspectives have turned Truman from one of the worst Presidents to one of the most forward looking Presidents in American history.

What is undeniable, however, is that Bush managed to alienate nearly every constituency including the rock solid right that elected him twice by decisions that were alarming and potentially disastrous. His fool's venture into Iraq may well be the biggest foreign plicy debacle in American history, salvaged only by the fact that the deaths in Iraq are nowhere near the number of fatalities in Vietnam. Throw in a terrible economic record and a stubbornness befitting a mule, and you have potential brushfire.

3) America desires to start over every decade or so

Barack Obama did not get elected President because he was the smartest man on the planet or because he had an exhaustive resume of accomplishment; in fact, he had no resume at all. But he benefited from an electorate that likes to shuffle the deck and deal the cards once again. This is not unusual. Bill Clinton had one of the BEST economic legacies upon which to run and the result for Al Gore was essentially a tie. Jimmy Carter had a terrible one, and the result was a right-winger nobody dared think could have triumphed only four years earlier.

Go check out American political history, particularly since the beginning of the twentieth century. Eight to twelve-year increments are the rule except for something unusual like the twin cluster of crises that got FDR elected four times. Following FDR's death, Truman ruled for eight years followed by eight years of Republican Eisenhower. Eight Democrat years (JFK and LBJ) followed by eight more Republican years (Nixon and Ford). Carter's interlude was brief and countered by Reagan's eight and Bush's four. Clinton followed with eight for the Democrats while Bush gave the Republicans eight. The only two exceptions during that time frame were Carter, who actually led Reagan by 25 points in July 1980, and Bush - whose Presidency brought down the curtain on the Reagan era as he moved into a more activist role for government. So McCain faced yet another historical obstacle.

4) Media bias

Now let me qualify what I'm saying here: I am NOT saying that the mainstream media (MSM) conspired to ensure that Obama won. There was, however, more of a systematic bias against the Republican candidate than I've ever seen. How bad was it? It was so bad that Dan Rather, one of the right-wing's pet hates for four decades, acknowledged it. Sarah Palin was challenged on virtually every tiny little thing she stated while Obama was given a free pass. I'm not decrying the inquisition of Palin - an agressive press is one of the necessary foundations of a free society - but the FACT is that virtually every commentator on the networks may as well have been wearing an 'Obama/Biden 08' button. It was so bad that 'Saturday Night Live' had a skit featuring the infamous 'get him a pillow' line that Hillary later used to club Obama with in a debate.

That said, Republicans need not blame media bias for their larger problem: a sick economy and a war with no end in sight. Had voters been prospering as at the end of the Reagan or Clinton years, all of the bias in the world would not have been able to deliver Obama the White House.

5) Luck

No political consultant will ever go on a TV show and admit that sometimes his (or her) candidate was lucky. However, without some luck all of the skill, master gamesmanship, and political savvy in the world is meaningless. Barack Obama enjoyed the bright light of good luck in almost every instance from the primaries through the general election.

The examples of how luck plays a role could, of course, be multiplied, but consider just a few of the better known ones. What if the 1992 Presidential election had been held in 1991, when George H.W. Bush still had a 70% approval rating? Bill Clinton would not have been elected. Or what if Reagan had sought re-election in 1983 rather than 1984? Odds are that he would have lost badly. And what if Bush 41 had faced Gary Hart rather than Michael Dukakis in the 1988 general election? Finally, would Reagan have won such an initial huge landslide had it not been to Jimmy Carter's misfortune to have the election on the first anniversary of the capture of the American hostages in Iran?

The candidate that wins usually benefits from some outside luck - not as the prime reason he won but as a supplementary one. Time is too brief to recount every instance, but consider just a few. First, he got lucky that Hillary Clinton opted to contest the Iowa caucuses - an exercise in futility that immediately labeled Obama a 'giant killer' when he beat her. Secondly, the one major negative story about Obama in the entire campaign - the anti-American ramblings of his spiritual advisor - were not revealed until March. Had they surfaced last November there is no doubt that Obama would have lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton. In fact, it is doubtful he would have even finished second. Finally, he got lucky when the Wall Street crisis broke the wave of popularity surrounding Sarah Palin.

But luck is not enough to win the Presidency. It is what you do with the lucky break(s) you're given that makes the difference. So while the preceding five external factors doomed McCain, he was also undone by internal factors.

1) Republican moderates lose

Despite all the carping of liberal media about how the Republican Party should offer more 'inclusion' (something they never say about Democrats despite the fact they cannot name a single conservative Democrat from outside the South), here is a simple truth: Republican conservatives WIN and Republican moderates LOSE. That has been the rule since 1968, and there is no reason to think it has changed. Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43 were all elected while running explicitly as conservative candidates. Ford, Dole, and McCain bought into the notion that center was better - and all three lost. Bush 41 managed to win the election where he made his opponent's liberalism the issue (and implied he was Reagan's third term) but lost once he raised taxes and alienated his conservative base.

The results of the election bear this out. Obama got 1/5 of the conservative vote. Furthermore, exit polls show that 34% of the respondents were conservatives compared to only 22% liberals - indicating that while the conservatives would not have won it for McCain by himself, that base of support would have enabled him to fish for moderates in the center without appearing to be an 'apostate' from conservative ideology.

Chris Mathews is therefore, wrong, when he interprets the election as proof we are 'no longer a center right nation.' There is a simple way to know whether or not we are a center left nation: it will be the day liberals actually start calling themselves liberals and stop calling themselves 'progressives' (a term they, in fact, lifted from earlier conservatives who were called progressives).

2) McCain tied himself to Bush with his 'fundamentals of the economy' remark.

The single most detrimental act McCain committed - and the one that sealed his doom most assuredly - was his declaration after the stock market crash that 'the fundamentals of the economy are sound.' While it was probably his intent to not stir up alarm, here is what most of the undecided and 'independent' voters heard:

"I'm just like George W. Bush. We'll just 'stay the course' and I won't give you any answers, and we'll just hope it turns out all right. I realize that the facts are bad, but I just can't admit that because then I might lose. No, the fundamentals are strong, especially if you have seven houses like me. Even if they aren't strong, I've just gotta say it - and stay the course."

Barack Obama decided early on that his best strategy was to run against George W. Bush. The voters were not buying it at first because McCain had, in fact, been one of Bush's harshest critics in some areas. The voters were making an independent assessment, and while the deck was stacked against McCain in the beginning, his image enabled him to actually take the lead coming out of the Convention. Voters weren't buying Obama's blueprint. But McCain made it impossible for any voter to ignore when he simply denied the reality of what was occurring on Wall Street. This no doubt reminded a number of voters of Bush's responses to Iraq and - probably more importantly - Hurricane Katrina.

In yet another unreported irony, this phrase appears eerily similar to one uttered by President George H.W. Bush during the 1991 recession at a town hall in Exeter, New Hampshire on January 15, 1992. Bush said, "There are some fundamentals that are pretty darn good."

3) McCain's judgment was severely called into question - a polite way of suggesting he was too old for the job.

Although the most prominent example cited is Sarah Palin (more on that in a moment), McCain made at least two other monumental blunders that severely called into question his ability to make rational decisions. The first - and much less important - of those decisions were his efforts at seeking the endorsement of Reverend John Hagee as a bridge to his party's Religious Right. It is simply bad form to take the endorsement of a guy who bashes the Roman Catholic Church in light of how important the blue-collar Catholic swing vote is in places like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. The fact McCain sought the endorsement made it appear he simply didn't pay attention to what Hagee said.

The second blunder was much more consequential with much more devastating impact: the 'suspension' of the campaign and 'threat' of cancelling the first debate. McCain's decision to act 'Presidential' backfired and cost him far more than he ever would have gained. Since the Democrats control the Senate, what exactly did McCain think he would get other than attacked by the party in power? It isn't as though McCain chaired the Banking or Finance Committee. But this act also invited Obama to make McCain's age - and more importantly his honesty - an issue by noting that 'Presidents must be able to manage more than one thing at a time.' Obama played this perfectly - raising the age issue without really raising it and from the spectre of judgment. Whatever tiny chance McCain had at winning went out the window with this foolish decision.

4) McCain failed to use his extra time to present a believable economic plan.

McCain was handed a gift from the heavens (about his only brush with good luck) when The Woman Who Would Be Dictator - Hillary Clinton - stayed in the nomination fight long after it was obvious that she had lost and had no prayer of winning. McCain had his nomination in hand on March 4th - a full two months prior to Obama - enabling him to assemble some economic advisors and present the skeleton of a plan he intended to pursue if elected.

I rarely agree with Roland Martin of CNN, but I watched one night when Martin pointed out that McCain did not need to score any points to be seen as the better candidate on Iraq. Martin advised McCain to get brushed up on the economy and come forth with a proposal. But McCain was seemingly incapable of even this one obvious fact. This failure enabled Obama to play his reliable card: McCain is a third Bush term. Had McCain presented something minimally competent then the claim would have lost its sting.

5) The simple fact that Barack Obama ran a spectacular campaign.

Barack Obama did - and there's no real way of escaping it - the impossible. For starters, nobody in his right mind gave Obama a chance to knock off The Woman Who Would Be Dictator. Hillary Clinton was on a boat ride to the White House - or so said every poll in the world. Obama began the race as a little-known orator with no major accomplishments whatsoever and a resume that would have had trouble serving as a maple leaf. Hillary was better known, better financed (at the outset), and ambitious enough to have promised to take action 'when I'm President again.' Hillary's simple plan was to argue 'back to the future' and imply she had already been President.

I will confess that I thought he was running to warm up the engine for a later run in either 2012 or 2016. What exactly was going on in his mind when he opted to run is something only Barack Obama knows. But he stayed on message and never gave in to the distractions. (It is also not mentioned very much by a media programmed to the status quo that Obama actually ran more negative ads against his Republican opponent than McCain ran against Obama - chalk another one up to media bias). He also did something that Michael Dukakis and John Kerry would have killed themselves to have known: he found a way to handle the 'liberal' label that had never been invoked. Rather than dodge the term or try to relabel himself, Obama used 'liberal' as a springboard to say, "That's just in comparison to you and George Bush," effectively tying together McCain and Bush and - though unchallenged - never actually answer the question. (Obama may be the best non-answering a question politician since the king of such tactics, Ronald Reagan).

6. Obama is the better-looking guy

I have long had a theory that was again proven up to a point in this election: the better looking guy wins because TV dominates the culture. This was not always true in radio days, but the simple truth is that Obama was going to win because he is the more telegenic. This has been known to varying degrees since JFK and really became the standard with Reagan. Just go back and look at the winners and tell me when the uglier candidate won:

1960 - Kennedy over Nixon
1964 - ugly LBJ over horn-rimmed glasses wearing Barry Goldwater
1968- Nixon over Humphrey
1972 - Nixon over McGovern
1976 - Carter over Ford (Note: neither guy was overly handsome but Ford looked like a tired balding man and Carter as a blue-eyed fresh face - which is why it was so close).
1980 - handsome Reagan over tired-looking Carter
1984 - handsome Reagan over racoon-faced Mondale
1988 - handsome (and more important taller) Bush over shorter, bushy-eyed Dukakis
1992 - handsome Clinton over weary-looking Bush
1996 - handsome Clinton over Viagara-using Dole
2000 - a tie between two telegenic candidates
2004 - another near tie between Bush and Botox
2008 - Obama over McCain

We have moved from regional politics so much into whether or not a guy is good-looking. It will be interesting to see what the Republicans throw up in 2012 against a tired Obama, which brings us to the most likely telegenic candidate, Sarah Palin.


What role did Sarah Palin play in McCain's demise and what are her chances for the future? Her role was minimal although it was unquestionably there. The problem was not her inexperience but the PERCEPTION of her inexperience. Politically, she and Obama are about equals as she wields executive authority in a small state. Was she qualified for the Presidency? No, but then again neither was Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John Edwards. All of them had resumes that paled in comparison to McCain, Biden, Richardson, Huckabee, and Dodd. But because of the importance of television, she became a major player. Let's face it: imagine Barack Obama with a Mike Tyson face. Do you honestly think for even a moment that he would have won a primary? Now imagine Sarah Palin 100 lbs. heavier and less attractive (insert Janet Naplitano reference here) but with a stout resume - she would never have been considered for the second slot.

Her contribution to McCain's demise is difficult to gauge because McCain's poll numbers dropped after HIS gaffe about the economy, not hers. The perception of media bias in Charlie Gibson's deceptive question about 'the Bush doctrine' (which has meant three different things through the years as Charles Krauthammer pointed out) probably actually helped her.

While I would agree with the assessment that she is a political naif (or - more importantly - SEEMS to be one), it is hard to say that she 'cost McCain the election.' In reality, she didn't, and if he had not chosen her, it would not have been as close as it was. But the Palin choice did bring to bear one problematic area for McCain: the public perception. It struck a fearful public that here was a guy who didn't think things through before he acted. In short, Palin's contribution to McCain's loss is limited to the fact that it simply reminded folks who didn't want a third Bush term that McCain could not be counted upon to divert from Bush in any direction including stubborness.