Wednesday, October 15, 2008
It's The Voters, Stupid: Why John McCain Lost
The pundits are already busy burying the corpse of the McCain campaign, and rightly so. As I noted *before* the market crashed, for all intents and purposes Barack Obama had this election in the bag several weeks ago.
Yet as they heap dirt on McCain's political grave, I can't help but feel that the punditocracy has failed to identify the true reason for his demise.
The autopsy will reveal plenty of candidates for the mortal wound.
The recession and stock market crash clearly turned the emphasis of the election towards McCain's greatest weakness--economic issues--and handcuffed him to a wildly unpopular president. (The greatest irony? For once, the Bush administration isn't to blame for our problems, and has been responding to the crisis in an imperfect but largely constructive and non-partisan manner.)
Sarah Palin's disastrous television performances turned what initially looked like a brilliant move into a major negative. (Though I do feel compelled to point out that VP choices rarely cinch the ticket; Dan Quayle was Vice President after all.)
McCain ran an undisciplined and unfocused campaign, which combined a lack of overall strategy with a pathetic inability to execute and a deeply unpopular focus on negative campaigning.
Yet in the end, the end came because of a simple fact. To paraphrase James Carville, "It's the voters, stupid."
John McCain is a self-centered man who ran a self-centered campaign.
If you boil everything down, his favorite and most fundamental argument for why he should be president is that he is an honorable warrior who has served his country, and thus is the best choice to be president. His closing statement in tonight's debate, where he talked about the importance of service, and how generations of McCains had served America was an emotional high point, and drew a better audience response than Obama's more pedestrian closing.
The problem is, this is a self-centered argument. Americans don't award the presidency to the most qualified candidate, or the best human being--they vote for the guy (or gal) they think will make their lives better.
George H. W. Bush was far more qualified than Bill Clinton, and was clearly a much better human being. That didn't stop the American people from turfing out a guy who won a popular Middle Eastern war with near-universal support from around the world.
McCain has Bob Dole disease; he literally cannot believe that he is losing because he feels like he's much more qualified. That's why he seethes with anger during the debates; he views Obama with ill-concealed contempt of a haughty and ancient warrior for a eggheaded whippersnapper.
And that's why he deserves to lose. He is fundamentally out of touch with the American people.
McCain portrayed Obama as a self-absorbed celebrity. I'm sure that Obama isn't lacking in self-regard (Presidential seal, anyone?). But he has proven a far shrewder politician.
Rather than attack McCain directly (he has attack ads to do that dirty work), Obama spent this debate coolly swatting away McCain's attacks, and repeatedly turning the discussion back to what the two candidates proposed to do for the American people.
His policy proposals were a pandering pastiche of cliches and vague feelgood phrases, but the viewers at home lapped them up like a (LOL)cat with a dish of cream. Every time Obama spoke, he offered something to help voters. Every time McCain spoke, he seemed to be trying to make Obama seem like a scary, dangerous guy...directly contradicting the visual contrast of a calm, collected, even slightly boring Obama with the nervous, angry, combative McCain.
Where Obama really shows his political chops is when he complements his pandering with uplifting rhetoric that appeals to the better angels of our natures.
When he says, "We're the one's we've been waiting for," he's speaking to the voters. Even more importantly, he's flattering them and making them feel better about themselves.
This is a technique that Reagan mastered, and Obama is following in his footsteps. Nor should we simply dismiss this as a tactic; as Reagan, FDR, and Lincoln has demonstrated, never underestimate the importance and impact of a president who can lift the spirits of a battered nation.
In the end, America decided that Barack Obama made it feel better about itself, and that this was more important than John McCain's hurt feelings.
It was Douglas McArthur who said, "Old soldiers never die...they just fade away." Already, McCain has begun to fade from view. May we remember him as a crusading hero, rather than as the embittered and angry man that he's become.