Thursday, November 6, 2008
Yes, yes, and yes to Byron York for writing pretty much the essay I had intended to write this morning: What Sank McCain - Could anything have prevented this defeat?
...In his concession speech, John McCain referred to his effort as "the most challenged campaign in modern times." He was right. What sank McCain's presidential bid was a set of the worst conditions to face any candidate in decades, in combination with an opponent who was not only a better campaigner but also the favorite of the nation's media establishment. And there was some luck involved, too.
Could any candidate have been elected to succeed a president of his own party whose job approval rating was 25 percent? Probably not. Could any candidate have been elected to continue his party's stay in the White House when roughly 90 percent of Americans believed the country was on the wrong track? Probably not. Could any candidate from the governing party have been elected after the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 4,000 points before one could even turn around? Probably not.
McCain faced all those obstacles -- and not just those, but a political climate in which his advantage over his opponent was perversely diminished by McCain's own courage and good judgment. In the primaries, McCain bet his entire candidacy on the surge in Iraq. He was right, and Democrats were wrong. By any measure, he should have benefited, and Democrats should have suffered, when the surge worked. Instead, as Americans achieved greater success in Iraq -- and as U.S. deaths fell to 13 last month, equaling the lowest total in a very long time -- the war in Iraq simply fell off many voters' radar screens. McCain's resoluteness and good sense went largely unrewarded.
And yet in spite of it all, McCain still managed to outperform conditions. The vote totals, as of 2 a.m. Eastern Time, show McCain with about 47 percent of the national popular vote. Perhaps that figure will go down a bit, but there's no doubt that McCain far outshone George H.W. Bush's 1992 re-election effort -- a campaign undertaken in poor conditions for a Republican, but not nearly as bad as what McCain encountered this time -- in which Bush won just 38 percent of the vote. Likewise, McCain outperformed Bob Dole, who won a little less than 41 percent in 1996. And McCain's percentage of the popular vote might be not too far from George W. Bush's in 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
In other words, McCain faced tougher challenges than his predecessors, yet somehow managed to win more votes. Just not enough...
York keeps his hands clean here and puts the case mildly, leaving out the massive voter fraud, the credit-card irregularities, the lies about campaign financing, and the stop-at-nothing tactics that started with the primaries (ask some Hillary supporters about that -- they're still angry) -- all of which made that climb even more difficult.
As a creature of the Senate, McCain took heat from conservatives early on for pulling his punches. Remember the pleas to fight, fight? But that's how things are in there, you fight hard over an issue, but when the fighting's done you have to remember that you're all Senators, and you've got to be able to do business with these same people again tomorrow on other issues, shake hands, and still be "friends."
McCain had the wisdom to realize that the national election was the same way. That what you said and what you did to get into office wouldn't be forgotten the day after the ballots were counted. He wanted to have it his way -- to keep a limiter on the rhetoric, to only punch so hard, realizing that politics in this country have been getting meaner and meaner, and that there would be a day when he would be leading a nation in need of reconciliation. That reconciliation might have come if the right man could run the right kind of campaign -- a campaign with a certain degree of gentlemanliness and waspish sensibility.
You can read it in the conciliatory sentences of his concession speech and sense the shadow that it was intended for his victory speech. It's a window into his fervent wish and intent at the beginning of the campaign. It almost worked. In another year it might have.
Gandhi observed that if India were to use violence in their fight for independence, then what kind of man would come into power? Violent men. And what could they expect to confront in running the state? Violence. McCain understands this implicitly.
Too late did his campaign shift gears and start to fight, fight. It probably didn't make any difference at that point.
I said early on that the Republicans had nominated another Bob Dole, bestowed another lifetime achievement award, given the nomination to a fine, but perhaps uninspiring leader, someone who would make liberals feel good about themselves as they could say nice things about him and still pull the lever for the other guy. Still, he did better than Dole did.
All this is to say that there's no sense in getting hysterical. In spite of a stacked deck and a less ruthless campaign, John McCain did just fine, thank you very much.
Calls for ideological purity on litmus test issues for future candidates are misplaced. Don't collapse the big tent. It wasn't the problem here. Republicans need to find a distilled essence of principle, yes, but how one falls on certain specific issues like abortion, immigration and the like are secondary and risk alienating people who could be our allies. That includes not only selection of leadership, but who we, as individual voters, are willing to lend our support to. Sarah Palin is more categorical in her pro-life stance than I am, but that does mean I wouldn't support her (for reasons that demand another essay). If you want ideological purity, vote Libertarian and enjoy your conventions in a phone booth.
Liberals look for payoffs. Conservatives look for soul.
Republicans need to find the essence of principle (let's call it solid American patriotic values for the moment), layer over a set of policies, and add a coherent and cohesive political machine. McCain proved that the right will compromise on specifics if they can believe in the spirit of the man or woman standing before them. We don't need pandering and payouts. We need leadership, especially when the alternative is so odious.
That's going to be the thing we're going to have to find as we remain vigorous as a party of opposition in the coming years.
In the mean-time, the rest of us are going to need to remain vigilant. We'll have to keep exalting traditional patriotic American values and the rugged individualism that this country was built on. We'll have to keep fighting in the trenches against the media machine, and on the campuses as we have been doing.
What we don't need is over-wrought nonsense. Please spare me the emails about impeaching Obama before he's even taken office. Irrational hatred didn't hurt Richard Nixon's reelection and it didn't hurt Bill Clinton. It won't hurt Obama, either.
The Republican Party at its best is far closer to the values of Americans (though we're going to be hard pressed to keep it that way unless we keep up the fights I mentioned above, among others), and the American people are going to need to have a viable alternative in two and four years from now. They won't throw the country into the hands of a bunch of hateful lunatics, no matter how right you think you are.
Let's take a breath, knuckle down, look for smart ideas and good leadership. The coming months will provide plenty of opportunities.