Thursday, October 16, 2008

How McCain Blew It

As this election comes to a merciful close, I can’t help but think that McCain could have won this thing. As a Republican with a brand linked to reform and pragmatism, he was the best in his party for the times. Guiliani, Huckabee, Thompson, and Romney, were all far too conservative, ideological, or political to turn swing voters in the middle. McCain, a guy who was openly mentioned as a possible VP candidate for John Kerry in 2004, was perfect. He also had the added bonus of Hillary Clinton exposing Barack Obama’s weaknesses prior to the general campaign. McCain could have won this thing, everyone knows that now, and he blew it.

Remember how Obama lost state after state at the end of the Democratic primaries? Remember how Hillary, found her niche, reinvented herself as a working class hero, and chided him for not being able to “close” the deal? The minute she finally had to cede the nomination to Obama, McCain should have picked up the torch she was carrying and ran with it full bore. He should have rolled up his sleeves and waded into Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan—states battered by job losses and a faltering economy—and vowed to fight for them in Washington. Looking back, I’m stunned he didn’t seize the chance to honestly address the needs of three pivotal swing states and champion them.

Instead he pulled out his maverick card, but never made the connection with the average voter what that should mean to them. Hillary--with her years of experience, with her husband’s knowledge of the presidency--had made the connection that she was going to be people’s surrogates in Washington. Those desperate for a voice found it in her. But McCain ended up becoming a bumper-sticker politician and nothing more. Even without the looming economic collapse, he could have shown that he understood the needs of the average person in a way Obama has never quite been able to connect on. Obama can’t be everything—he’s philosophical, he’s intellectual, he’s holistic. McCain can’t touch him in any of those areas, and Hillary couldn’t either. But McCain should have carved out some area of his own—as a fighter for the a common man, a reformer for the middle class.

And then there was Sarah Palin. It’s obvious why McCain picked her, but can that decision be defended on anything other than political grounds? It took little effort for Katie Couric to expose her as nothing more than an amateur one step away from the most powerful office in the world, and for SNL to turn her into a laughable caricature. McCain’s selection of her, while creating much media buzz, and augmenting his “maverick-y”image, left him open to the accusation that he is too unwieldy for such important times. Can anyone really posit that Sarah Palin is ready to run the country? Such an idea should scare the hell out of anyone who loves this country, and should indict John McCain as treasonous. Yes, as McCain said in the last debate, maybe she does understand families with special needs children. Maybe she is a reformer in Alaska. But does any of that prepare her to run a country?

Finally, there was the economic meltdown. McCain’s dramatic suspension of his campaign, his appeal to Obama to delay the debate so that he could go to Washington and oversee the formation of the $700 billion bailout bill, only to do nothing, show up at the debate as promised, and rubber stamp the bill a few days later, was the moment he jumped the shark. Had McCain, the maverick, come out and denounced the bailout as nothing more than a blank check for the Treasury Secretary and a fee pass for robber barons pilfering the middle class, perhaps he would have appeared sympathetic to millions of voters. Perhaps he would have appeared as a merciful champion of the taxpayer, or, a real maverick. At the very least he would have had something real to stake his campaign on during the debates, apart from Obama.

Instead, they both endorsed the bill, they both voted the same way at a key juncture in American economic history, so what’s the point? Why not give voice to millions of disconcerted, hurting tax paying voters, by articulating a unique position at a crucial moment in American economic history? For McCain, sagging in the polls, an economic meltdown was a blessing in disguise—a chance for his campaign to stake out an essential section of the American electorate apart from the base. Instead, he played it the same way Obama did, and then, as the economic crisis deepened, he began talking about Weatherman Bill Ayers.

McCain realized, too late, that Americans wanted a fighter. What Obama offered up in cold calculus, pragmatism, and fresh ideas, McCain finally decided to match by finding his inner Hillary, growing a pair, and pledging to fight for the American people. He came out in the last debate swinging wildly, keeping Obama on the ropes, denouncing, trashing, rolling his eyes, scribbling furiously on his pad, but it doesn’t seem like that will be enough. McCain has been a victim of his own wild swings. The final debate was a metaphor for his entire campaign: manic, angry, and desperate.

To me, the McCain has always seemed plagued by a “let’s just get through the next month” mentality. Ever since his campaign was broke last December, he has been running a month-to-month insurgency…trying desperately to beat the next opponent and stay on the field for one more round. The problem with this is no one is able to articulate what McCain’s vision for the country is. What does he want to do? Why should we make him president? Now that he has arrived, what will he do for the next for years? In the absence of a clear message it is not hard for Obama to tie him to Bush and the last eight years—which has become the swiftest form of death by association. McCain left this opening for Obama, and never closed it.

Obama, on the other hand, has struck millions as a leader. He has become a refreshing change. Ever since his victory in the Iowa caucus, he has cast his vision and challenged Americans to stand up and take ownership of the country’s problems and help fix them. His has always been a mix of addicting foresight, and unapologetic hindsight. McCain never captured the average American’s imagination, never appealed to hope, never channeled energy, never really had any ideas apart from nuclear power, offshore drilling, and trying the surge in Afghanistan. Most importantly, none of it seemed believable. From his ideological shifts starting in 2006, to Sarah Palin, to the final debate, McCain seemed to be improvising his way through. Making it up as he went along.

2008 will be a year of characters and stories. Obviously there is Barack Obama. But there is also his vanquishing of the Clinton brand. Hillary’s inept management again de-railed her ambitions. Her reach, again, went beyond her grasp. Once, she was in the shadow of her husband Bill, the one they called The Natural. Now, she resides in the shadow of the one they call The One.

And then there is McCain: the decorated Navy pilot, the Vietnam POW,
the Senator, the man of courage and principle. In 2000 he was subjected to a different kind of torture at the hands of Karl Rove and George W. Bush, as they smeared him and his wife, to win the South Carolina primary, and go on to steal the presidency. This year, again, Bush has denied McCain. By 2008 Bush so badly damaged the country that perhaps nothing McCain could ever have done would have earned a victory in November. Bush had stacked the odds so far against him that to watch McCain fight for it, one last time, was itself a Sisyphean event, agonizing to watch.

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