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Why McCain Lost -- Bad Luck Compounded By Bad Management

  • Andrew Tully

John McCain conceding defeat in Phoenix on November 4

John McCain conceding defeat in Phoenix on November 4

WASHINGTON -- He should have been a perfect candidate.

Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) was a certified war hero, a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War who was captured by the enemy, imprisoned -- and tortured -- in a camp outside Hanoi. He championed initiatives such as reform of the country's campaigns to ensure that no politician could simply "buy" an election.

And in an election year when his Republican Party had lost prestige because the party's leader, George W. Bush, was waging an unpopular war in Iraq and had presided over a failing economy, his reputation as an independent thinker should have made him immune to anti-Republican sentiment.

But he lost.

Some attribute McCain's loss to President-elect Barack Obama to mismanagement, while others believe he never had a chance to begin with.

Norman Ornstein, a veteran political observer at the American Enterprise Institute, says McCain's campaign had bad luck from the very start.

He says that on one level, the war in Iraq was a winning issue for the Republican because it reminded voters that McCain was a war hero who would take courageous positions, and someone with deep foreign-policy experience.

Shift To Economy

In Ornstein's view, the problem was that people focused on McCain positively only when the war was a leading issue. But in September, less than two months before the election, the attention of the electorate shifted dramatically to the economy, never one of McCain's strengths. And McCain was seen as an ally of Bush, who's blamed for the bad economy.

"John McCain, during his 26 years in Congress, has been interested in many things: foreign policy, intelligence, military matters, communications, campaign finance reform, global warming," Ornstein says.

"Economic issues were just not on his agenda. This is not a good year to have a lack of passion about economic issues or a set of positions that adhere too closely to an unpopular president," he adds.

Robert Spitzer agrees. A professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland, Spitzer points to a comment McCain famously made early in the campaign that "economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."

Spitzer says such an approach offered no help to McCain at a time when people feared for their jobs and their retirement savings, and the candidate looked inept in addressing the economy.

"His early campaign focus tended to be more on foreign-policy issues, the first presidential debate dealt with foreign-policy issues for the most part, and that played to John McCain's strong suit," Spitzer says.

"So he has had to scramble some to focus more specifically on economic issues because he has changed his message," he adds. "You recall that the first thing that Senator McCain said when the Wall Street meltdown began was that the nation's economic fundamentals were sound, and the events that ensued seemed to undercut that whole idea."

Inconsistent Campaign

So could McCain have overcome this unlucky turn by running a better campaign? Yes, says retired U.S. Representative Bill Frenzel, a Republican who represented a Minnesota district in the House of Representatives for 20 years.

Frenzel notes that McCain at times abandoned his independence to earn the support of as many Republicans -- and unaffiliated voters -- as possible. But such shifts, he says, tended to disturb his original supporters.

"Senator McCain [was] in the unenviable position of the challenger, the person behind in the polls who has to catch up. And to catch up you have to do something different," Frenzel says. "And so McCain had to adapt to different conditions and to do things that he might not want to do if he were ahead. In doing so he looked less consistent, a little more harried, and that [did not serve] his cause well."

Frenzel says one of the things McCain did to help his flagging campaign was to choose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. But Democrats found her polarizing, and even many Republicans say choosing her was a gimmick to help attract social conservatives to McCain's cause.

Palin at first energized the McCain campaign and gave him a boost in the polls, but in the days leading up to the election the numbers showed that her presence on the ticket helped to drag him down.

McCain faced tremendous challenges in a contest that pitted an elder and experienced candidate against a youthful competitor bent on change.

Obama's campaign was quick to embrace new technologies to attract potential voters and raise funds. The Democratic candidate was a constant presence on YouTube, which didn't exist during the last presidential election, and on supporters' cell phones thanks to text messaging. McCain's team, meanwhile, appeared content to run a traditional campaign.

Other problems in the McCain camp probably can be blamed on the candidate's advisers. But only McCain can be held accountable for his own demeanor. And that was problematic, too.

'Frustrated And Angry'

Where Obama helped himself by consistently appearing unflustered, McCain sought to make himself appear exciting. Instead, the Republican merely looked ill-tempered.

"John McCain started with a big advantage. He had the experience, he was a hero," Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says. "The notion that in a crisis, this was a guy you could count on for cool leadership has been damaged a bit because during the debates [with Obama] and in other places he's seemed frustrated and angry, and with the financial crisis, his actions, to a majority of voters, seemed basically impulsive and risky," he continues. "So he took what was an advantage and turned it into a disadvantage."

Perhaps in another year, running to succeed a different president, with different issues, McCain could have been a formidable and even successful candidate for the U.S. presidency. This year, however, by all accounts, he appeared to be merely a challenger.