Sometimes campaigns and candidates make the difference. Very possibly, a different campaign or a different candidate could have won the presidency for the Democrats in 2004. (Most Republicans cited Dick Gephardt as the Democrat they feared most, John Kerry as the candidate they feared least.) Not impossibly, as Bob Shrum suggests, a different vice presidential candidate might have helped Al Gore in 2000.
But 2008? On the cable chat shows, the interviewers ask: “What’s the one thing John McCain has to do to turn this thing around?”
“Well Chris, two things that would really help would be a 5,000 point rise in the Dow and a 20 percent jump in home prices over the next three weeks. Failing that, I suppose he might talk about the 1960’s some more.”
Yes, the McCain campaign has been ghastly. It cannot decipher what ails the U.S. economy and it offers no remedies. All McCain has is a biography—at a time when voters are focused on their own lives, not the candidates’. Baffled by a lack of enthusiasm for McCain’s personal narrative, the campaign shifted its focus to the other candidate’s biography.
Trouble is, Barack Obama’s biography is not very interesting. Hillary Clinton, at least, worked with actual radicals at a time when radicalism was a going concern. But Obama? McCain’s attack on him is the equivalent of the William McKinley campaign attacking William Jennings Bryan for having kept company with Nathan Bedford Forrest decades after the Civil War. Yes, the old rebel was an unrepentant traitor. Mostly though, he was all washed up.
Republicans have been fighting this second American civil war for eleven election cycles now. It’s been a good run! But just as 19th-Century Republicans eventually ran out of Union generals from Ohio, so the modern Republican Party has bumped up against the statute of limitations on campaigns against hippies.
McCain needed a bigger message.
While nobody could have predicted that a global financial crisis would erupt in the fall of 2008, it was observable a year ago that the incomes of the middle class had stagnated during the Bush years. (I know because I observed it—in fact, in 2007 I published a whole book largely on this very point.) McCain previously had expressed doubts about many Bush policies, from the tax cuts of 2001 to the administration’s easy indulgence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 2005. He could have continued that theme in 2007 and 2008. He could have campaigned as Nicholas Sarkozy to Bush’s Jacques Chirac—a critic from within the party who offered change combined with practical experience and a moderate worldview.
Had McCain seized the middle in this way, his last-minute attempt to depict Barack Obama as an out-of-touch radical might have made sense. After all, it is true that Barack Obama happily kept company with extreme characters in the days when he was contemplating a campaign for mayor of Chicago: not only the unrepentant bomber Bill Ayers, but also the flamboyant preacher Jeremiah Wright. That truth, however, only becomes interesting when linked to a broader truth relevant to voters’ lives.
Had McCain offered a meaningful economic message early on, he could now say: “I want to solve this crisis—and I know how. Barack Obama just wants to use the crisis to sell a lot of destructive social programs that nobody would accept if they had time to think about them.”
The moment at which such a message became impossible for McCain was his decision to embrace the full re-enactment of Bush’s tax cuts. It must have seemed an easy decision back in the primary. It was a litmus test for many conservative voters and, after all, with Democrats poised to expand their majorities in the next Congress, there was zero likelihood those tax cuts would ever be enacted.
Trouble is, by founding his campaign on a full supply-side message, McCain denied himself the opportunity to say anything new. Worse, because that message originally took shape as a (correct) response to the problems of the 1970’s, McCain’s attempt to dust it off and reuse it as a response to the very different problems of the 2010’s only made him look more out of date.
That’s not a failure of campaign tactics. It’s not even a failure of strategy. It’s a failure of the Republican Party and conservative movement to adapt to the times.
Very soon, this election will be over. Then Republicans and conservatives will confront a much harder question: How long will this adaptation take? It took Democrats 12 years to understand and accept their defeat in 1980. Surely we can be faster learners?