10 November 2008

On the McCain campaign, Part II

Continuing our postmortem on the McCain campaign's failures...

Third, it's clear that Sen. McCain's team horribly mismanaged the bailout issue, as the Wall Street meltdown (and the Senior Senator's reaction to it) were clearly the tipping point in this election. In a mid-September entry, I suggested that Sen. McCain return to Washington for a few days in the wake of the forthcoming bailout. He did this. However, I also suggested that he personally sit in on Finance & Banking Committee hearings and hold regular press conferences, so as to give the impression (real or implied) that McCain was the one driving the bipartisan compromise that was sure to come. The point, of course, was to tout his bipartisan, problem-solving credentials. Whether it's something like campaign finance reform or reworking the country's immigration laws, this is simply something that has been a hallmark of his career, for better or worse.

What I didn't suggest that he do was skip out on Letterman, threaten to cancel the first presidential debate, suggest firing SEC Chairman Chris Cox, and appear at the White House with Sen. Obama. The first three gave the impression that he was erratic; the fourth -- where he was photographed sitting at an opposite end of the table from the Changemaker, with the president in the middle -- dashed any hopes of a presidential, problem-solving moment that he could glean from the crisis. Seven weeks from election day, what good is such a bold move if your opponent is invited to do the exact same thing? 

Fourth, in an election that pitted a purported change agent against a Washington veteran of three decades, McCain's trademark dry wit (he likes to crack that it's always darkest before it goes completely black) and engaging personality were too often neutered. At times, McCain appeared angry -- during the first debate, he barely looked at Obama. In the second, while he performed much better, he was widely seen as lecturing his younger opponent. McCain's age clearly was an issue, and he seemed to be baited into overreacting at times by Obama's cool demeanor. He looked like the angry old uncle.

Remember the Saddleback Forum? Rick Warren asked McCain a very good question about whether he thought his age would be a factor in the election, and in response, McCain slumped over in his chair and pretended to fall asleep. It was hilarious, and it's the McCain that I've come to know and admire over the past few years. Unfortunately, the happy warrior of 2000 and the 2008 Republican primary -- he of the endless riffage sessions with reporters, myriad town-hall meetings and yes, the trademark humor that allowed him to seem 8 or 10 years younger than he really was -- was noticeably absent from the last several months of his campaign. Even in his cherished town-hall debate format, McCain looked unnatural and uncomfortable. It wasn't until the final debate that he actually began to look like himself again, and by that time, the die had been cast.

For instance, in early October, after press access had been severely curtailed, McCain sat down for an interview with two reporters from Time magazine. The reporters tape-recorded the interview and their editors published it verbatim. The short, curt politician snapping at his questioners just didn't seem like McCain. It was moments like this that played directly into Obama's hands.

Overall, McCain's team allowed Obama to paint him as an aging, out-of-touch Washington insider who was ill-equipped to deal with America in the 21st century. How exactly this happened, I'm not quite sure -- but the burden clearly fell on Team Maverick to combat this perception, and they failed.

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