Maverick Politics: John McCain’s 2008 Presidential Bid

In late 2007 and early 2008 the Presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) seemed dead in the water. Against the expectations of many McCain was able to retool his campaign and outlast his rivals to win the Republican nomination.It was a remarkable achievement for John McCain to win the republican nomination, then go on to run a highly competitive Presidential race. Winning the Presidency is ultimately a function of credentials, timing, image and political skill. McCain had the credentials and the image to win. Unfortunately his timing was not as good and his political skill not enough to overcome this.MoneyMcCain’s team had to deal with money disadvantages throughout the campaign. Early on, the campaign nearly ran out of money. To his credit, the candidate reformed his money team and revamped his fund-raising strategy. 1  Meanwhile, the candidate also refocused and refined his message.Gradually the fortunes of the campaign improved. In reality the republicans had little chance of matching the energized fund-raising of the Obama campaign. Still, McCain could have been more competitive had he taken better advantage of technologies such as the internet. Sen. Obama’s campaign smashed all campaign finance records primarily by using the internet. McCain was still competitive, however, until a series of errors late in the campaign._________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ 1. Allen, Mike. “McCain Retools Money Team, Delays Entry.” 2007. 10 Jan. 2009< >.Legislative error and The Bush EffectMcCain suspended his campaign late in the process to return to Washington. He wanted to appear proactive in regards to the looming crisis. The results were not as he had hoped. In the process of developing a bill, the candidate would further alienate his base while also allowing the Democrats to point out his alignment with Bush administration policies. In the end he voted for a bill that provided an unprecedented bailout for the financial industry but also millions in unrelated “pork” spending.The significance of this event to the campaign cannot be overstated. All along it had been a struggle for McCain to win the support of the fiscally and socially conservative republican base. Gradually he had gained traction based on his “anti-pork” stance. 2  This vote alienated what should have been McCain’s republican stronghold.This does not mean that likely McCain voters became Obama voters. Instead this vote sapped the energy of the republican grass roots base. Some voters may have chosen to stay home. Fund-raising enthusiasm and effectiveness waned. At the same time, the pro-bailout vote gained little for McCain with independent and likely Obama voters. McCain’s attempt to appear as a statesman-like leader had backfired. According to political analyst and former Clinton administration official Dick Morris “Had McCain voted against the bailout of Wall Street firms and backed the republican alternative, there is no question in my mind that he would have won”.3TimingMcCain’s maverick image in the 2000 election effectively gained him support, but not____________________________________________________________________________ class=WordSection2>2. Dick Morris.  “Where the GOP Went Wrong.” The Washington Post. 6 Nov. 2008: A21. 3. Dick Morris.  “Where the GOP Went Wrong.” The Washington Post. 6 Nov. 2008: A21. enough to defeat the candidate of the republican establishment, George Bush. By 2008 McCain had tacked back toward the establishment, but the American public was moving in the opposite direction. It was ready for a post-partisan maverick candidate. MSNBC Political Director Chuck Todd writes that “one gets the sense that the public is yearning to support a candidate whose profile is McCain’s, but circa 2000, not today”. 4Bush went a long way towards eroding McCain’s conservative profile during the 2000 campaign. In later years, McCain’s alignment with Bush would cost him dearly. By 2008, any association with Bush was politically toxic across the spectrum. McCain’s high profile association with some administration policies opened him up to attack by the democrats.McCain’s loss is more complicated that just blaming the “Bush effect” however. Despite his association with an unpopular President, McCain was able to run a highly competitive race. Mistakes down the stretch and the progression of world events would eventually turn the race in Sen. Obama’s favor.The Palin EffectThe selection of Gov. Sarah Palin ®-AK) as a candidate for Vice President has been criticized in the latter stages of the campaign. Some of this criticism is misplaced. Palin’s selection energized a republican party that seemed to be just waiting to lose the election. McCain’s instinct to make an “outside the box” selection was his shrewdest political move of the campaign. Obama had already played into McCain’s hands by selecting longtime Washington_____________________________________________________________________________4. Chuck Todd. “Prisoner of Bush: John McCain’s tragic Presidential Sitcom.” MSNBC. 2007. NBC News. 10 Jan. 2009   < >.veteran Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) As his Vice Presidential pick. Now McCain was prepared to ride the wave of change.The mistake of the McCain team was the failure to fully prepare Gov. Palin before her entry into the campaign. Also, Palin’s image dominated the media during the crucial stretch run. McCain and his ideas were overshadowed both by Sen. Obama and Gov. Palin. An earlier selection would have lost the element of surprise but would have allowed for more prep time, cohesion and the re-emergence of McCain as the leader of the republican ticket.Gaffes and IndecisionAt times, McCain showed a lack of decisiveness that further weakened his campaign. He accepted the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee – a man known for a number of controversial statements 4. This gave an opening for the Obama team to deflect the controversy that had arisen over Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Senator’s former pastor. When questioned about Hagee, McCain seemed unsure how to answer. From ABC News:When asked in an exclusive This Week interview if it was “a mistake to solicitand accept his [Hagee] endorsement” McCain replied “Oh, probably, sure”. [Then]McCain made clear that he’s still “glad to have his endorsement”.  5In another incident McCain was unable to answer the question “How many houses do you own?” McCain seemed reluctant to answer as he parsed his words. It was later determined that he owned seven houses. The ownership was not so much the issue as his reluctance to answer the question forthrightly The entire incident took McCain off message at a critical point in thecampaign. Democrats were able to use it to insinuate that McCain was out of touch with the average American. class=WordSection5>                        McCain also missed an opportunity to solidify his conservative base during the debate over border security. His adamant support of the Bush administrations comprehensive immigration plan hurt him on both sides of the political spectrum.Conservatives were rankled because of the candidate’s reluctance to emphasize immigration law enforcement, including the prevention of illegal entry. At the same time, Democrats used the issue to further characterize McCain as a Bush “clone”. 6  This strategy was used throughout the campaign with significant effectiveness.Analysis and ConclusionAmericans, whether they agreed or disagreed, respected what they saw as McCain’s principled stands on issues. The erosion of that image was caused more by McCain’s actions than by anything the Obama campaign did. McCain claimed he’d “heard the American people” and altered his position on border security. 7  This change provided evidence that McCain, while not unprincipled, was more of a political animal than previously thought.A similar trait was shown during the Hagee incident and the Capitol Hill bailout negotiations. Meanwhile President-Elect Obama was able to remain above the fray and McCain was unable to effectively question his opponents qualifications. In short, the McCain campaign_______________________________________________________________________________6. Allen, Mike. “McCain Retools Money Team, Delays Entry.” 2007. 10 Jan. 2009< >. 7. Dick Morris.  “Where the GOP Went Wrong.” The Washington Post. 6 Nov. 2008: A21. was playing defense too often during the campaign. Its attempts to go on the offensive weremiscalculated and mistimed.In the end, the shifting of political sands contributed as much to McCain’s loss as anysingle event. The precipitous slide in the economy brought it to the forefront as an issue. McCain’s strength, according to the polls lay in national security. Once this was a secondary issue in the minds of voters, President-Elect Obama had the advantage. McCain did not seem prepared to provide answers for the economy. Obama, while short on details, at least portrayed an action-oriented image and appeared to recognize the seriousness of the economic collapse.McCain had three main advantages: experience, the success of the Iraqi troop surge, and his reputation for being against wasteful government spending. He was unable to capitalize fully on any of these advantages. The value of experience was negated by a growing sentiment for change. The war and national security became less of an issue as the economy melted down. McCain himself diluted the third advantage by voting for a massive financial industry bailout that also contained billions in unrelated spending. These missteps, along with the rising tide of progressivism resulted in McCain’s defeat.