In the aftermath of the defeat of the McCain campaign, Republicans are trying to figure out not only what went wrong, but what to do in the future. This is a conversation that is a long time coming. From 2000 on, the GOP was unified around George W. Bush. From about 2005 on, Bush was as toxic as a mortgage-backed security. Political movements based around single individuals do not tend to last, and by hitching their wagons to Bush, the Republican Party sowed the seeds of their own downfall. (Note that the Democrats are doing the same with Obama now. Sic transit gloria mundi.)
The failure of the McCain campaign must be tied to the failure of the Bush Presidency. He fought on a completely uneven playing field. The media was in the tank for Obama, and the Democratic machine was energized. But that doesn’t excuse the mistakes of the McCain campaign. They had the right message in the “Country First” theme, but they never really used it effectively. McCain could have won, but it would have taken an incredibly smart campaign to have done it. Instead, the McCain campaign went for the tried-and-true techniques of Bush 2000 and 2004—in a political climate that could not have been more different.
How McCain Could Have Won
The first step that a candidate has to do is understand the political climate. McCain never really had a handle on it. The American public was furious with Congress. Congress’ approval ratings were at the level usually associated with used-car salesmen and dirty diapers. The “politics as usual” of the last 8 years was creating the perfect climate for someone to run against the Beltway.
Obama was “change.” McCain should have been “reform.” With an incredibly unpopular Congress, McCain could have easily ran as the candidate who would clean up government. That’s why the Palin pick was, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the right pick. But the McCain camp never really used her in the right way. Their “maverick” message was nice, but it wasn’t substantive enough. They let the media paint the picture of Sarah Palin, and they lost control of the only one truly brilliant tactical choice they made. The Palin situation could have saved McCain, and it gave him his best numbers, but they never built on the momentum she generated.
When the financial crisis hit, what did McCain do? He ran to the Beltway, and pushed through another pork-laden Beltway deal. I agree with Todd Zywicki that the bailout was the moment where McCain cruised to failure. It undercut McCain’s credentials as a reformer. The “suspension” of his campaign never went anywhere, and McCain never capitalized on it in the way he should have. It made him look panicky and indecisive, which only made Obama’s too-cool-for-school demeanor more attractive.
What should McCain have done? I think the idea of a suspension was not played right. He should not have suspended his campaign, but gone to Washington. He should have demanded that Congress pass a clean bailout with no pork but lots of accountability. He should have stood against both the Congress and the President and opposed the final bill. He should have clearly and convincingly said that his choice to do those things was based on a rejection of the usual politics in Washington. If the bailout passed (which it would have), he should have continued to use it in every speech as a sign about how the whole system in Washington is broken.
If this had been an election about generic “change” versus substantive reform, McCain could have won. But McCain’s campaign was too orthodox to defeat the Obama juggernaut. They ran a stereotypical Republican campaign when they should have run a campaign that pit McCain as the experienced leader that would clean up Washington. McCain’s campaign executed their strategy quite well, all things considered, but their strategy was simply the wrong one at the wrong time.