Finally, at the risk of sounding like E.J. Dionne or a HuffPoster, I believe that McCain made a fundamental mistake by putting his presidential ambitions in the hands of so many Bush operatives. To be sure, Steve Schmidt was generally an asset more than a liability; and in GOP circles, most of the big guns worked for the Bush/Cheney operation. But Nicolle Wallace was largely responsible for the handling of Gov. Palin, and Wallace was an utter failure. Schmidt's operation was peppered with more and more Bush/Cheney folks after McCain clinched the nomination, and even more after the Democratic primary ended. The campaign was obviously run much like the GOP's presidential operation in '04.
The focus on Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko so late in the game was a colossal mistake; the ads (one claiming Palin was a forceful opponent of the Bridge to Nowhere; another ludicrously warned that Obama supported teaching sex education to kindergartners) were often half-truths at best; the strategy to attack Obama's character in ads approved by the candidate himself (instead of third-party 527 ads) was a terrible idea; the ground game was atrocious; and while Schmidt prided himself on talking point after talking point, day after day, the lack of an overall campaign narrative (described in a prior post) was perhaps the campaign's biggest failure.
Perhaps most simply, McCain wasn't himself. The gregarious guy that I saw in an airplane hangar in suburban St. Louis in February was funny and likable; he seemed to delight in even poking his supporters in the eye from time to time, but by October, that character was gone. I'm not quite sure how or why this happened. His transformation from happy warrior to angry old uncle happened sometime during July or August, around the time that Schmidt took the reins from Rick Davis, a longtime confidante of the Senior Senator's.
If you don't believe it, juxtapose his cool performance in the February debate while under attack from Gov. Romney, with his angry persona in the first debate against Obama.
That said, I don't entirely buy the idea that the John McCain of 2000 was markedly different than the John McCain of 2008. That's a liberal talking point. But I was disappointed that the guy whose hand I shook last February had a clearly different temperament than the one I saw angrily debating Barack Obama in October. Maybe a presidential campaign does that to one.
While McCain's aforementioned back-of-the-bus free-for-alls with reporters obviously had to be curtailed, McCain himself became distant, short and, by all accounts from reporters, visibly unhappy. He once called the press (only half-jokingly) "my base." Why shun them? McCain was truly the last political celebrity before Obama blast on the scene. By shunning the press and pushing reporters away, Team Maverick gave away a huge advantage.
Cindy McCain was once asked whether, if Karl Rove walked past her, she'd stab him in the back. "No," she responded. "I'd stab him in the front." I will forever revile Rove for what I believe were carefully orchestrated, take-this-cash-and-don't-tell-anyone-about-it-who-asks on McCain's character in 2000. The Bush team of 2000 engaged in character assassinations of the most vile kind against an American hero, particularly in South Carolina. While Rove might have won two elections, we have seen a seismic shift away from this slash-and-burn, divide-and-conquer strategy that drove George W. Bush to eight years in power.
There were overtures of this as the calendar turned to fall, especially once Schmidt took control. And it didn't ever seem that McCain was ever totally on board.
The campaign rhetorically asked, "Who is Barack Obama?" while ignoring McCain's remarkable record of political independence. It didn't take up Obama's sometime-socialist tendenices until the Changemaker's telling "Joe the Plumber" incident, which was far too late in the game to make a dent in Obama's lead. It highlighted the exact wrong aspects of what was wrong with an Obama presidency. Even worse, it allowed Team Hope to drive the narrative about McCain and dictate how the electorate viewed him.