The GOP presidential campaign of 2008 will certainly be one that historians discuss for years to come. But not in the way that some Republicans had hoped for when they selected an experienced maverick, loved by the media, to face off against an inexperienced African-American who had trouble vanquishing his opponent in the primaries. (Click here for reader response on this article.)
To be fair, the odds were stacked against any Republican. The economy has suffered while the incumbent president was phenomenally unpopular. Democrats were well organized and well financed. They found, in Barack Obama, an exceedingly charismatic and dynamic candidate.
But nothing is inevitable in American politics. A strong campaign, combined with the issue of race and fears about Obama's inexperience, could have produced a different outcome.
History is filled with examples of campaigns marked by bad decisions and poor performances that undermined their chances of victory. In 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater made statements that allowed President Lyndon Johnson to depict him as a candidate too far out of the American mainstream. Eight years later, Richard Nixon returned the favor to Democratic Sen. George McGovern, who had put together a campaign that appealed to the New Left and other activists inspired by 1960s activism but failed to bring in traditional Democratic constituencies such as organized labor. In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis was the proverbial deer in the headlights when Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush and his team redefined the technocratic Massachusetts Democrat into an extreme card-carrying ACLU liberal who let out murderers on weekend furloughs. Bush then stumbled in 1992 with his tin ear about the economic recession. In 1996, Republican Robert Dole ran a lethargic campaign that emphasized nostalgia and suspicion while President Bill Clinton ran around the country boasting about peace and prosperity. During the last election, Sen. John Kerry didn't adequately defend himself against "Swift-Boat" attacks.
But Team McCain ran a campaign that ranks on the bottom of this list. This was an aimless and chaotic operation made worse by poor choices at key moments. Their first mistake was picking Gov. Sarah Palin. Though in the first week following her selection, Palin energized the conservative base of the GOP, she became a serious drag on the ticket. This turned into one of the worst picks since McGovern selected Thomas Eagleton, a Missouri senator who withdrew after revealing that he had gone through electroshock therapy and suffered from "nervous exhaustion." By picking Palin, McCain simultaneously eliminated his own best argument against Senator Obama—the limited experience of his opponent—while compounding his own most negative image, that of someone who was erratic and out of control. The pick also fueled the feeling that grew throughout September and October that the Republican candidate was willing to take any step necessary to win the campaign. The Palin pick made every decision that followed seem purely political.
The second mistake was going dark. McCain missed the biggest lesson of the Reagan Revolution: conservatives usually do best when they appeal to America's optimism and develop a positive campaign around a vision for the country. President George W. Bush understood this in 2000, stressing compassionate conservatism, and in 2004 he couched his candidacy in an optimistic argument about how the Bush Doctrine could strengthen America against terrorism and restore the kind of security that seemed lost after 9/11.
McCain and Palin rejected this approach, instead putting together a campaign that was almost entirely negative and focused on attacking their opponents. They sounded much more like Goldwater in 1964 than Reagan in 1980, opening themselves up to Obama's charge that they were willing to divide the nation for the purpose of winning the election. They called Obama a socialist, an extremist and even linked him to a terrorist. The campaign got so out of control that a man at one Palin rally yelled "Kill him!". McCain had to restore order at a town meeting when one woman explained how scared she was of having an "Arab" in office. Still, the McCain campaign continued to run advertisements connecting Obama to 1960s radical Bill Ayers.
The third mistake was the "no-state" strategy. In contrast to Obama's "50-state" strategy whereby Democrats hoped to win support in red states, the Republican ticket moved from one state to the next without any clear rationale. Just as the Republicans lacked a broader vision, they also lacked a clear electoral strategy. From the start, they were playing catch-up and allowing Democrats to drive their decisions. The goal seemed to be courting support only when polls were narrowing rather than deciding in which states to focus their efforts. While Democrats systematically laid out their organizational and financial efforts, Republicans scrambled from one place to the other.
The fourth mistake was the way McCain handled the crisis on Wall Street. McCain's decision to temporarily stop the campaign and possibly call off the debate at the start of the Wall Street crisis in September looked terrible. McCain often looked a lot like President Bush in 1992: uncertain about what to do about the economy and at many moments not seeming to care. In contrast, Obama's decisions and performance seemed presidential.
McCain's final mistake was to leave his most politically powerful argument until it was too late. While there were many problems with Joe the Plumber, the argument could have been used much more effectively against Senator Obama: that the Democratic ticket was too left of center, especially on the issue of taxes. Toward the end of the campaign, McCain picked up some steam in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. But the argument came much too late and at a point when many Americans had become so cynical, and turned off, by the Republican campaign that McCain could not restore his strength.
Now, the McCain-Palin campaign will be added to the list of devastated losers. The odds against the Republican ticket were formidable as any political scientist will tell you. But McCain could have put up a more effective fight. Perhaps the best outcome for Republicans would be if they took the campaign to heart, learned from their mistakes, and figured out for the next time around how to put together a campaign that looks more like 1980 than 1964. At the same time the next GOP candidate needs to look toward the future, realizing that at least when it comes to the economy, the conservative era has finally come to an end.