November 22, 2008

McCain's Campaign

There never seemed any "there" there, that is in the McCain campaign. Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review examines:
The type of campaign McCain ran eliminated whatever chance he may have had left. Liberals spent the fall pretending that it was the nastiest campaign ever, in part to justify their own abandonment of the senator, over whom they had previously fawned, for Obama. Almost all of the McCain campaign’s attacks on Obama were fair game, as were a few it did not make. (If McCain thought that keeping silent about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright would protect him from charges of racism, he rather badly misjudged.) But the campaign lacked substance, particularly on domestic policy, which neither McCain nor his running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, seemed particularly interested in or knowledgeable about.

While McCain’s campaign rarely stuck to any message for very long, federal spending was a policy issue about which McCain did get passionate. His central economic message for most of the campaign was that he could be trusted to control spending. Most voters would like the federal government to spend less in general (while favoring spending more on nearly every specific program any politician proposes). But spending cuts will not lead to any direct improvement in middle-class Americans’ well-being, and McCain never even bothered to argue that it would help them in the long run.

Much of the time McCain made an even narrower argument: He would eliminate earmarks from the federal budget. A lot of conservatives have come to hate earmarks in principle. Their elimination is not, however, a major priority of most voters.

For the most part, McCain adopted the most unimaginative possible Republican agenda on taxes: Keep the Bush tax cuts, and throw in a reduction in corporate tax rates too. There was not much for the middle class there, especially since the Democrats had already pledged to keep Bush’s middle-class tax cuts. McCain gave Obama the opportunity to present himself as a tax reformer for the middle class.

When McCain had proposals that could appeal to middle-class voters, he never made anything of them. His health-care plan would have made insurance more affordable, increased coverage, and given individuals more control and, especially, the ability to take their insurance with them from job to job rather than depending on their employers. But McCain rarely explained the plan’s benefits or defended it against Obama’s many misleading attack ads. In the middle of the fall campaign, the senator’s aides made major changes to the plan, as though to emphasize how lightly they took the whole issue. His tax plan would have increased the tax exemption for children. But neither McCain nor his aides presented his proposals as a program to help the middle class, and indeed McCain repeatedly bungled his descriptions of the tax exemption. The McCain campaign wasted the months between the effective end of the Republican primaries and the end of the Democratic ones. What if McCain had spent that time establishing himself as someone who would fight for reforms to benefit the middle class? Had McCain run on a middle-class tax reform, for example, he would have simultaneously separated himself from Bush on economic policy, addressed his party’s longstanding weakness on domestic issues, and made more voters feel that he sympathized with their concerns...

McCain’s campaign disproved Thomas Frank’s [author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?"] thesis. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush succeeded by appealing both to voters’ values and to their interests. If the median voter had seen McCain as a protector of her interests, it would have been easier to get her to see Obama as out of the mainstream. On their own, however, these attacks [Ayers, Wright] were not capable of winning an election.

When the financial crisis hit, McCain carried a triple burden: He was in the incumbent’s party, his economic platform strongly resembled the incumbent’s, and he had done nothing to make middle-class voters consider him an answer to their anxieties. He then briefly suspended his campaign and tried to cancel the first presidential debate while he went to Washington to work on a financial-rescue bill. It was an act of considerable folly. McCain had no particular economic expertise, and there was no reason to think he would be able to deliver a deal. He reinforced his image as an erratic showboat at the worst possible time.

Some conservatives have suggested that McCain should instead have voted against the financial-rescue bill, taking up the populist cause against Wall Street bailouts. That course of action would have separated McCain from Bush pretty dramatically, but it might also have looked reckless, particularly if McCain had sunk the bill and the markets had nosedived. McCain was never going to take this advice in any case. He had made a second career out of bucking his party in favor of conventional wisdom; he was not about to buck both.

According to the exit polls, voters whose top issue was the economy went for Obama over McCain by 9 percentage points. Worse, 60 percent of voters concluded that McCain was not in touch with people like them — and 79 percent of those people voted against him. Those voters alone put Obama very close to victory: He had to win over a mere 6 percent of the voters who considered McCain “in touch.”

Governor Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy ended up conforming to every bad pattern the McCain campaign had set. Once again there was no follow-through. If her selection made any sense, it was as a way of underscoring that McCain was a fresh-thinking reformer willing to take on his own party when appropriate, as she had done. After the selection, however, no further attempts were made to develop that theme, and Palin was placed in the traditional veep-candidate role of attack dog, specializing in cultural attacks on the elitist Democrats. She was not the first, second, or third most important reason McCain’s campaign failed, but she illustrated those reasons.

Because McCain’s campaign was so weak on the issues, he would have had no mandate if he had won. He would have been elected not to be an inexperienced coddler of radicals.

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