McCain’s Struggles: Four Ways He Went Wrong

Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

As he tried to jump-start his flagging campaign earlier this week, John McCain uttered a new rallying cry: “We’ve got them just where we want them.” But even his die-hard supporters had to question that assessment. According to countless public polls, McCain’s campaign has been losing, not gaining ground. No candidate wants to be down about seven points nationwide with no clear momentum and less than three weeks to go.

The numbers are likely to shift before Election Day as voters are forced to make their final commitments. And McCain still has a shot at victory, if the Bush states that have swung away from him in recent weeks, like Florida, Virginia and Ohio, swing back. But it is an uphill climb, and it beings up the question, Why is he so far behind this late in the game?

Without a doubt the two main factors are the financial crisis and the presidential debates. When Lehman Brothers collapsed on Sept. 14, McCain still led the national polls by about two points. For McCain, the subsequent fallout proved to be a triple whammy, reminding voters about the benefits of government regulation (a traditionally Democratic argument), highlighting the failure of leadership of the current White House and accelerating the nation’s collective sense that it has been heading in the wrong direction.

The debates, for their part, largely acquitted Obama of the biggest question mark against him: Does he demonstrate presidential mettle? McCain’s performance varied, with high points and low points, but no matter what he did on the debate stage, he never forced Obama to lose his bearings. After each contest, polls showed that independent voters clearly decided that Obama came off as neither scary nor an amateur. In most polls, swing voters said Obama won all three debates, by margins as large as 2 to 1.

There was, of course, nothing McCain could do to prevent the financial crisis, or even much, most observers say, he could do to blunt Obama’s strong debate performance. But that doesn’t mean the Republican nominee didn’t exacerbate those and other situations this fall. Four decisions the campaign made over the past two months in particular have heavily contributed to its current woes.

McCain Drove into a House Republican Wall. At the height of the financial crisis, John McCain took a big, and many would say ill-advised, risk, announcing he was suspending his campaign and even threatening to skip the first debate to get “in the arena,” as his hero Teddy Roosevelt put it. He returned to Washington and attempted to demonstrate a type of leadership on the financial crisis that would distinguish him from Obama’s more hands-off approach. The effort to help craft a bipartisan bailout plan had muddled results, mainly because McCain’s influence among House Republicans, the crucial voting bloc, was limited. Nonetheless, after an initial bailout plan was crafted, his campaign declared victory, saying McCain had helped give the House GOP a real bargaining position. This posture might have worked had the House Republicans not surprisingly sunk the bailout package in a vote that Monday, sending the stock market reeling and the nation further into a crisis of leadership. McCain’s gamble had not just failed to produce results, it left him looking impulsive and erratic. Days later, to add insult to injury, McCain was forced to vote for a revamped bailout package chock-full of the special-interest earmarks he has long opposed and had vowed not to allow in any bailout package.

Sarah Palin Needed a Crash Course She Never Got. The selection of Palin as McCain’s running mate was initially a coup. It shocked the nation, rocketed McCain in the polls, especially among white women, and solidified support among the GOP base. McCain rallies suddenly rivaled Obama’s rallies in enthusiasm and size. But while media scrutiny of Palin’s record started to damage her maverick credibility (can you say Bridge to Nowhere?), her bubble truly got deflated by Katie Couric. Palin’s two weeks of interview broadcasts on CBS Evening News coincided with a collapse in her approval ratings and a loss of McCain’s gains among white women. In the interviews, Palin showed a lack of understanding of a number of key federal issues, including the debate over the constitutional right to privacy that forms the basis of Roe v. Wade, McCain’s policy on Pakistan and the record of Vice President Dick Cheney. After Couric was done, Saturday Night Live took over. One can only imagine how much better it might have been if the McCain campaign had given Palin some extra time to prepare for the questions she would surely face. But that would probably have required that she not be a last-minute choice, which she apparently was.

McCain Stuck with Attacks That Depended on Dominating the News Cycles. The McCain campaign strategy called for an aggressive endgame: raising key questions about Obama’s readiness for office. But when the time came to unleash the harsher attacks concerning former domestic terrorist William Ayers, ACORN, troop funding and abortion, they seemed like small distractions. The financial crisis had overwhelmed the news cycle, making issues like house payments and job security far more important than Obama’s less flattering associations or alleged character flaws. As a result, a strategy that might have found more success in another time fell flat. And with McCain’s poll numbers already sinking on news of the economy, his harsh messages and attacks began to look increasingly desperate, fueling negative perceptions of his candidacy.

McCain Stopped Having Fun. Unlike many politicians, McCain’s always depended on his rascal side, his inner mischief maker, to woo voters. This was the “maverick,” the image that America fell for during the 2000 campaign. It wasn’t just McCain’s candor that mattered — the so-called straight talk — it was the Rat Pack pizzazz that accompanied it. McCain was the guy who enjoyed the fight. Since the spring, however, that McCain has been hard to find, the result of a conscious, misguided decision to keep him on message and avoid unpredictable encounters. By isolating himself from the press, McCain lost his natural audience, and his frustration has begun to grow. He now appears the beleaguered, sometimes frustrated fighter, an inherently less optimistic and less appealing personality.



One Response to “McCain’s Struggles: Four Ways He Went Wrong”

  1. Pokanajar OPlanters Says:

    Psychiatrists and wikipedia define maverick as schizophrenic, self centered, unwilling to belong, party-of-self, suppozably centrist, like Nixon, Giuliani, Dole (all selfish womanizers). Avenge Abramoff. We know McCain’ retired Senate buddies did whatever Abramoff did. Jack’s only sin was beeing too young, too successful, Jewish. Call him Maverdick. Damoto milked financial reform for donations, causing this crisis, and benefiting Dick Grasso, Lou Ranieri, Palmisano, and Chaminade’s Gerstner. WHile they were all doing Diogardi’s whore baths like Zenya Mucha and Mira Beretta.

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