Like many Republicans I’m concerned selecting Romney as our standard-bearer guarantees a repeat of McCain’s defeat in 2008. Today the “accepted wisdom” by supporters of Gingrich and Santorum is that McCain was too moderate, and that by selecting another moderate as the 2012 Republican nominee we are doomed to lose in November. In order to better evaluate where Romney stands today it’s necessary to consider McCain’s mistakes during the last election cycle from the November 2008 perspective. Thankfully on election night 2008 Jennifer Rubin posted The Top Thirty Errors That Doomed McCain. I’ve reviewed these and divided them up into the following error types: Attack, Domestic Policy, Internal Campaign, Personal, Media Handling and Sarah Palin.
Rubin points out several reasons for McCain’s defeat related to Sarah Palin. Rubin recognizes that McCain’s campaign team blew Palin’s rollout, and worse, immediately began trashing her in private. Unfortunately for McCain – and a Sarah Palin thrust into the public eye for the first time – things didn’t stop there. The disparaging remarks about Palin began leaking to the press and became public. Instead of recognizing Palin’s innate charisma with average American voters including independents and rolling her out whenever and wherever possible, McCain’s campaign team hid her and treated her as badly as the liberal mainstream media that lampooned her mercilessly as ignorant, “I can see Russia from my backyard,” and a wild-eyed soccer mom drenched in moose blood. Any decent campaign team would have been able to short circuit this treatment with the truth. For instance, Palin actually said about Russia, “They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska,” which anyone who’s ever looked at a globe or even watched an Alaskan themed show on the Discovery Channel would know is true. As for Palin’s hunting acumen, where I live dead deer carcasses are common in the backs of pickup trucks during hunting season, and anyone who’s ever eaten Bambi knows that deer meat is delicious and one of the healthier meats available. Perhaps maybe that’s why Sarah Palin is even more popular today in these parts than her former running mate ever was.
The handling of Sarah Palin points out other mistakes by McCain and his campaign staff. McCain should have shown some integrity by personally canning the staff responsible for its handling of Palin. In fact McCain should have exhibited much greater hands-on control with his staff throughout his campaign, preventing other errors Rubin points out such as his failure to better control his team, preventing arguments and in-fighting from going public and exhibiting a campaign in apparent disarray. If he had a better campaign team, McCain wouldn’t have wasted time and resources in Iowa instead of putting those into Virginia, a state with more electoral votes at stake.
Of the 30 errors Rubin describes, these mistakes account for just under a quarter. We’ll throw in “Waiting until the final Saturday Night Live before the election to show self-deprecating humor,” to push it over that mark. We could also add McCain’s failure to find a credible economics adviser at a time when economics was the key issue of the election, made worse by McCain’s response to the financial meltdown where he called off the debates in order to show he was serious about handling the crisis, and his failure to come up with a credible economic plan in the final weeks of the campaign. So over a third of his mistakes are related to the internal machinations of McCain’s staff and the apparent bumbling of an old man out of his depth, resorting to public theater to appear relevant.
Will Romney react similarly? First off Economics happens to be Romney’s strength. McCain seemed uncomfortable with economics, much preferring interest in foreign policy. That’s not surprising since foreign policy is one of the few powers reserved for the executive branch. For a former Cold Warrior and POW like McCain economics must seem pointless. After all, a good conservative would know that sometimes the best economic action is to do nothing, not that McCain was a good conservative (Rubin’s Reason # 28 “Too much hostility toward conservatives offering smart strategy and policy ideas.”) Romney’s business acumen directly translates to economic matters. Secondly there will be no Sarah Palin repeat this round, unless Sarah Palin appears at the convention and accepts the nomination with Romney as her VP (if so, remember folks you read it here first!) Romney will most likely choose a known quantity, a conservative with credentials that could help seal the deal with his base. Ron Paul would be a solid choice, or to allow me to breathe for the next 4 years Rick Santorum, Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal or Tim Pawlenty. The best VP might be another Rick, Rick Perry from Texas. There’s already precedent for a moderate candidate from Massachusetts selecting a conservative from Texas to be his running mate after all. McCain tried to seal the deal with conservatives with Palin, but only a few conservatives knew about her and the MSM was so shocked, and the McCain response to the Palin attacks so lukewarm, that the Media was able to use McCain’s VP choice as a cudgel to beat his campaign into the ground with.
For being as wise and experienced as McCain is, he also had Media problems as the Palin episode proved. McCain whined about the Media and he didn’t control it the way Gingrich does. Established GOP figures like Gingrich understand that belly-aching about media bias does not make headlines or win votes, but smacking them around sure does. In fact the minute Romney’s camp feels mistreated by the MSM it should take out their frustrations by having Romney chew the head off the first reporter that gets in his way just as Gingrich did to CNN’s John King. Romney’s team must understand that John King and the media loved Gingrich’s response at the January 19th, 2012 debate almost as much as Gingrich’s audience did. At the same time it could learn from Gingrich’s treatment of the media behind the scenes. No one schmoozes the MSM more than Gingrich. He has treated the press well and never blocked their access to him, whereas McCain’s team cut off access the traveling press’s access to McCain and declared war on the MSM without understanding that such actions are like beating the tide back with a broom. Yes the media is liberal, and it holds conservative candidates to a higher standard, but that hasn’t stopped conservatives like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush from reaching the Oval Office. There are ways to handle the liberal press that allows the conservative message to get out, but it’s not easy and it shouldn’t be left to amateurs as it was in 2008.
Finally, the key to McCain’s failure according to Rubin’s reasons is what I would describe simply as McCain’s failure to go on the offensive and attack Obama and the Democrats at every opportunity. Four years on I am left with the impression that McCain tried to fight a boxing match according to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules but instead the Democrats mugged him before he even got inside the ring. I’ve identified 13 of Rubin’s 30 reasons as resulting directly or indirectly from McCain’s failure to attack Obama and the Democrats. As Rubin points out the McCain team failed miserably at “oppo” research. They failed to attack Biden for his earmarks and lobbying on behalf of the banking industry, the most powerful industry in Biden’s home state of Delaware. They managed only lukewarm attacks on Obama for his cozy ties to Chicago’s Daly Machine and Big Labor, and failed to make an issue of his ties to the racist Rev. Wright, terrorist Bill Ayers, and indicted financier Tony Rezko. McCain failed to explain the Democrat’s role in the financial meltdown including ties to Countrywide’s CEO Angelo Mozilo, proven by the lucrative deals handed to “the friends of Angelo” like Chris Dodd, Nancy Pelosi’s son Paul Pelosi jr, Barbara Boxer, James Clyburn and Donna Shalala. McCain could have created a steady drumbeat of scandal that became a rhythm throughout his campaign, tainting the Democrats and particularly their standard-bearer then Senator Obama, but instead McCain wasted his time talking about bipartisanship, allowing the Democrats to dodge their role in the economic meltdown and blame the crisis on the GOP. I’m not sure why McCain chose this path on these issues. Perhaps it’s because he has never had to fight for his political life as a senator in Arizona, or the shellacking he received by the Bush team in the South Carolina primary in 2000 left him feeling that a scorched-earth attack policy wouldn’t sit well with his conscience. Regardless McCain had the opportunity to not only paint Obama as a tool of corrupt interests but the entire leadership of the Democratic Party. Had he successfully done so he could not only have won the election but employed long “coat-tails,” taking back the Senate and maybe even the House for the GOP.
It is too soon to determine whether Romney has held back attacking the President and the Democrats. Unfortunately the Democrats have already inoculated themselves and their president from the charges that could have damaged them in 2008 but won’t today. Romney has focused Obama during most of the debates, but his team has been mostly busy in putting out the fires caused by the insurgencies of the “not Romney” candidacies of Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and Santorum. Although I have argued that a brutal vetting of our candidates will create a more effective one to go against Obama and his allies, I’m beginning to have my doubts, although it’s good to remember that by this time four years ago Hillary was still the one to beat for the Democratic nomination. Still I’m getting to the point where I believe the GOP is facing diminishing returns by distracting Romney, forcing him to pour his resources into fighting first Gingrich then Santorum instead of developing a consistent attack strategy against Obama.
Rubin’s article is just one opinion of why McCain lost, but it goes a long way to rebutting the claim that McCain was somehow too moderate or “Obama-lite” to win that floats around conservative circles these days. The problem wasn’t McCain’s ideology or the lack of fervor he inspired among conservatives, it was the fact that his inept campaign failed to punch back twice as hard. The battle for the presidency isn’t just a euphemism. It is a physical fight, one the Democrats understand instinctively how to win and the GOP recoils from. If there is any lesson to be learned from 2008 it’s that the GOP must develop a stomach for the fight and a willingness to take it to their opponents. Romney’s scorched earth tactics against Gingrich in South Carolina prove that he has both. The only questions are will the GOP nominate him, and once nominated, will Romney do what it takes to win?