I'll say straight off that the economic situation, the unpopularity of the Bush administration and the superb campaign run by Barack Obama all made this a very difficult year to be the Republican standard-bearer.
But John McCain certainly didn't help his cause by running one of the worst campaigns in modern presidential election history, rivalling even Mike Dukakis's dire efforts in 1988. His campaign was unfocused, even confusing, and lurched from message to message without ever making anything stick. It was also overly negative and centred on trivia.
How could he have run things differently to make thing at least a bit closer or even pull off an unlikely victory?
For a start, he needed to put more distance between himself and Bush. Obama was able to paint him as being a continuation of the Bush years and McCain was never able to counter that successfully.
And one obvious way he could have done that would have been to oppose the continuation of the Bush tax cuts, which he had initially opposed. He could have positioned himself as a fiscal conservative, worried about the record public deficit in the USA which would only be made worse by irresponsible tax cuts. This would have tied in well with his opposition to 'pork barrel' spending. As it was, that emphasis on earmarks was always unconvincing and Obama was right to point out that earmarks account for only a tiny proportion of public spending.
Indeed, although McCain was in favour of a freeze on public spending, he specifically exempted spending on defence and veterans' affairs, which indicates to me he wasn't prepared to take on some of the special interests in order to achieve his stated goals. Moreover, it's difficult to present a convincing case for freezing spending if you support a $700 billion Wall Street bailout.
And this brings me to his antics during the debate on the bailout. By supposedly suspending his campaign to make sure the bailout package went through, McCain then had to deliver. As I've highlighted before, he didn't. If you're claiming credit for bringing House Republicans on board at the same time as a majority of them are voting against the package, people are entitled to ask some very hard questions about your judgement and leadership ability.
This came on top of his now infamous comment about the fundamentals of the economy being sound. With a record public deficit, people losing their homes and financial institutions already having gone under, this was a truly daft thing to say and raised questions about how in touch McCain was with ordinary people. Given that McCain had already said that he wasn't fully up to speed on economic matters, it made it almost impossible to picture him as someone suited to lead the country during difficult economic times.
And on top of all this, there's McCain's spectacularly ill-judged pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Had he wanted to run as a fiscal conservative, Mitt Romney would have been a good choice. Or, if he'd wanted to reach out to moderates and independent voters, he could have picked his good friend Joe Lieberman, who is believed to have been his first choice. Had he done so, he would have burnished his reputation as a maverick and sent a clear signal that the radical right-wing of the party was no longer in charge.
Instead, he pandered to the religious right and picked Palin. He chose to fire up the base of his own party in an election which was only ever going to won by appealing to moderates. And in doing so, he managed to pick someone who made former Vice-President Dan Quayle look like a Nobel Prize winning genius.
Much has been said about Palin's unsuitability to be Vice-President - her latest idiocy is that she apparently believed Africa was a country, not a continent - but in picking her, McCain undermined his own strongest card, his claim to be an experienced leader. You can't claim that when you pick someone so inexperienced as your running mate. And in doing so, he also managed to draw attention to his age and health.
Finally, the last few weeks of his campaign were a disgrace. All that stuff about Ayers and ACORN only managed to make McCain look mean and focused on utter trivia. When you've lost your home or job, you're not going to give two hoots about a tenuous connection between your opponent and a washed-up 1960s terrorist, especially when (a) it's a connection shared with several Republicans and (b) the terrorism itself took place when Obama was eight years old. It was just absurd, as was the whole Joe the Plumber nonsense.
In short, although this was always going to be Obama's election to lose, McCain did himself no favours with the quality of his campaign. To win, McCain needed to portray Obama as the risky, inexperienced choice. But while Obama was always a picture of cool, McCain's own campaign made the Arizona Senator a much bigger gamble. And he got the result he deserved.
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