Political Hay

How John McCain Lost

Let the campaign post-mortem begin.

By 10.7.08

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John McCain lost the election Sept. 24 and Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. Nothing that is likely to happen between now and Nov. 4 can change this outcome.

Since Sept. 24, polls have increasingly pointed toward a Democratic landslide. Obama not only has an outside-the-margin advantage in nearly every national poll, but leads strongly in enough battleground states that if the election were held today, the Electoral College vote would be 353 for the Democrat, 185 for the Republican. Even Karl Rove's electoral map now shows Obama winning.

Two weeks ago, after polls first began showing a trend toward Obama, I warned against a Republican panic. The candidates had not yet met in their first debate and it was possible that a strong performance by McCain might shift the momentum back toward the GOP candidate.

On Sept. 24, however, the McCain campaign suddenly freaked out. The Arizona senator announced that he was suspending his campaign activity, seeking a postponement of the Sept. 26 debate, and flying off to Washington to push for the Wall Street bailout bill.

WHAT HAPPENED? McCain himself described the decision in terms befitting his "Country First" campaign slogan: "Americans across our country lament the fact that partisan divisions in Washington have prevented us from addressing our national challenges. Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country."

Reporters and pundits refused to take that high-minded declaration at face value. On the front page of the next day's Washington Post, Dan Balz suggested this latest "maverick" move would be seen by voters as "a reckless act by an impetuous and struggling politician," and quoted a GOP strategist bluntly calling it "desperate and nuts."

The Obama campaign immediately rejected a postponement of the first debate. McCain ally Sen. Lindsey Graham had suggested switching dates with the first vice-presidential debate, and some saw this as a Republican attempt to gain more time for GOP running mate Sarah Palin to prepare for her meeting with Joe Biden.

Whatever the motive, McCain's bid to delay the debate was a non-starter, thus destroying his message that the financial crisis was such an emergency as to require the suspension of politics as usual.

POLITICS AS USUAL was strongly against the Republican nominee. An L.A. Times poll found 55 percent opposed a taxpayer-funded financial bailout; an Associated Press poll found only 30 percent supporting the plan proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Why such widespread opposition? According to a CNN poll, 77 percent believed the bailout would benefit those who had caused the financial problems in the first place.

As with immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, McCain's pro-bailout stance made him the most prominent advocate of an unpopular proposal. His attempt to push for quick passage of the measure was rebuffed. A Sept. 25 White House conference reportedly turned into a "contentious shouting match," and the bailout bill was defeated Sept. 29 in the House, with most Republicans voting against it.

The measure passed four days later with strong majorities in both houses of Congress, but the delay effectively prevented McCain from enhancing his profile as a bipartisan leader.

Instead, by siding with the president on an issue that voters identified as favoritism toward Wall Street, the Republican cemented in the public mind a message that Team Obama had been promoting for months: A vote for McCain would mean a third term for George W. Bush.

ANY CHANCE that the first presidential debate would reverse Obama's momentum quickly evaporated. Before Sept. 24, both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls had shown the race a statistical tie; by Thursday, Obama had surged to a 7-point lead in both polls. Nor did the vice-presidential debate between Biden and Palin change that trend -- with three days of post-debate polling completed Monday, both Gallup and Rasmussen showed the Democrat ahead by 8 points.

Thursday, it was reported that the McCain campaign was pulling out of Michigan -- a swing state that once seemed the Republican's best shot at flipping a Democratic "blue" state. To those who have closely followed this year's campaign, the abandonment of Michigan was tantamount to surrendering any chance of a Republican victory on Nov. 4.

The acknowledgement of reality is not a panic. And the attempt of some Republicans to encourage miracle comeback fantasies serves only to distract conservatives from the task ahead.

It was McCain's outspoken support for the unpopular bailout -- a big-government intervention incompatible with conservative economic philosophy -- that handed the election to Obama. The bailout failed as politics and, as evidenced by Monday's selloff on Wall Street, it also failed as policy.

Democrats are already rushing to promote Obama's coming victory as a mandate for their "progressive" agenda. Conservatives need to begin telling the true story of McCain's defeat, which must be admitted before it can be explained.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.