Where McCain Went Wrong

Political wiseguys assumed McCain couldn't win honorably, and the Arizonan had once lost with honor.

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After almost two years of failing to settle on a single, consistent message for his presidential campaign, John McCain tried to find it in two other men: Joe the Plumber and Bill Ayers. In the final presidential debate, an aggressive McCain turned Joe's now infamous campaign conversation with Barack Obama—in which the Democrat said his tax cuts were a way to "spread the wealth"—into proof that Obama would engage in class warfare. (Translation: He's a big-spending socialist.) As for Ayers, an agitated McCain demanded to know more about "the full extent of that relationship" between Obama and the former radical leader. (Translation: We can't trust Obama.)

Oh, and there was one more person McCain decided to shout out: George W. Bush. As in: "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago." (Translation: Get this guy Bush off my back.)

In the end, McCain's last-ditch attempt to save his campaign fell short. Let's face it. This is not a good year to be a Republican: Unpopular president. Unpopular war. Unstable economy. Even so, the conventional wisdom about McCain had always been that if any Republican could win, he was the guy: a likable hero with a political brand untethered to the GOP. And a fighter, too. When McCain became the last man standing in the Republican primaries, there was a glimpse of his spirit. He had refused to give up when his campaign ran out of money last summer, firing his staff, hitting the road, and shocking everyone by winning the New Hampshire primary. It was a personal triumph.

GOP turmoil. But somewhere along the way, a certain unavoidable reality set in. McCain was presiding over a dysfunctional Republican Party on the verge of civil war—with divisions among the cultural conservatives, the tax cutters, the foreign policy hard-liners. Even the factions had factions. And in the past, McCain had antagonized almost every one of them, with relish. Now he had to make peace in the party to win the war. So he revised his (now virtually invisible) bipartisan immigration reform into a plan to "build the fence first." The deficit hawk found new affection for those Bush tax cuts. Hey, it worked.

After winning the nomination, there were still some glimpses of the old McCain—talking about poverty and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, visiting Memphis to confess he had been wrong when he voted against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. But hold on. The political wiseguys assumed McCain couldn't win that way. Not in the political party that Bush built—in which the leader caters to divisions, not consensus. No doubt McCain was also reminded (as if he had to be) that he once had lost honorably. Never again.

Besides, the general election was supposed to be mostly about national security—about Iraq and the best commander in chief. On that, at least, there was party unity. But as gas prices soared, the economy quickly became the top issue—and that's Democratic terrain. That's when the McCain campaign took a dark turn, deciding character was now the only key to the kingdom. Disqualifying Obama became its chief goal: The untested celebrity. The liberal. The novice. The unknown. And worse. When it came time to choose a vice president, McCain would have loved onetime Democrat Joe Lieberman. But the wiseguys once again advised that the party's base would revolt. So McCain blew the base a kiss: Sarah Palin. Those voters who always wanted to know more about how Obama spends his time "palling around with terrorists" were thrilled. The rest just wondered how McCain ever thought she was qualified for that job.

The nastiness was infectious. McCain himself started asking, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" and his crowds sometimes turned scary. But the rest of the public wanted to know more about its economic future, not Obama's past. When McCain finally came up with a plan for the economy, the vision thing was still overwhelmed by his inability to hide a genuine disdain for Obama. At every debate, the edge in his voice and grimace on his face were unmistakable. If this indignant McCain had a bubble over his head, it would no doubt say, "Can you believe I'm in the ring with this unqualified guy and he's beating me?"