Where did McCain-Palin go astray?
1. Bill Ayers rather than bin Laden
Clinton-Gore '92 used focus groups like they were the Oracle at Delphi. The McCain-Palin should have taken a page from a successful campaign's playbook. Tell a focus group who Bill Ayers is and see how that plays. Not well, it turns out. Or indifferent to an unrepentant terrorist/university professor. Instead of trying to link Sen. Obama directly to a domestic terrorist who is obviously no longer a threat, how about reminding voters of the threat of international Arab-Muslim Islamofascist terrorism? I'm not suggesting Obama is any way connected to such terrorism or that he supports such terrorism. I am suggesting most voters would agree that McCain has more experience and is better equipped to handle terrorist attacks and similar international crises. It seems to me the McCain campaign forgot about that, and so did voters. Because voters, apparently, can only concentrate on one issue at a time. Bush-Quayle '88 kept that axiom in mind and used it very well to hammer home its twin messages (credit Bill Clinton for this): no new taxes, and the other guy's a bum.
2. Sarah Palin rather than Joe Lieberman
Again, I highly recommend the article in The New Yorker's Oct. 27 issue (www.newyorker.com) on how Gov. Sarah Palin (R.-Alaska) entered the v.p. conversation among the conservative punditocracy, and how McCain ended up picking her. At first she pushed McCain into the lead; now it appears she's costing the ticket a few precious points, and McCain will ultimately regret his decision to pick her. If he is really putting the nation at risk by picking her, as one Republican charged in the aforementioned article, that's the second time in 21 years a Republican nominee has done that. The article confirms a badly kept secret that McCain's first choice was Sen. Joe Lieberman. He didn't want to risk a floor fight at the Republican National Convention, in which social conservatives may have revolted and refused to nominate the pro-choice independent. McCain could have asked them: do you want to be right, or do you want to win? I do agree that a "maverick" choice was almost mandatory. A conventional choice like Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R.-Minn.) would have seemed to voters like just another couple of Republican white guys.
3. President George W. Bush: can't shake him
At this point, the president is probably at peace with being the least popular president in the modern era. (And by "modern era," I'm not referring just to this century.) Still, I suspect he looks wistfully at the White House portrait of President Richard M. Nixon and says, "Gee, if only I were as popular as you when you waved goodbye to your staff on the White House lawn Aug. 8, 1974."
Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) stuck like glue to the president for eight years, being the loyal soldier, counting the days until he could ascend to the office he felt was rightfully his. He is now paying for that fealty. Shortly after he won the Republican nomination, McCain and his staff should have prepared some major policy speeches--foreign and domestic. The speeches' theme would have been "I'm not George Bush," which McCain tried so lamely to announce at the final debate Oct. 15. In each speech, he would have said, "Here's where I think our friends in the White House have gone astray. Here's where my term is going to be different." He wouldn't need to insult the president directly by mentioning him by name. But this speech tour would have made it clear: "I am a Republican. But I don't believe this administration has served us well. I'm John McCain, not George Bush, and I'm going to take this country in a new direction."
I remember reading that before the 1988 presidential campaign got underway, Vice President George H.W. Bush made a series of five policy speeches in which he outlined to conservatives where he stood on issues important to them. At that time, his popularity among conservatives loyal to President Reagan was rather poor, and he was vulnerable to a challenge from a more conservative Republican presidential contender. These speeches helped him solidify conservative support and hold off Sen. Bob Dole (R.-Kan.) and Rev. Pat Robertson. In much the same way, by separating himself from the president, McCain could have worked to court independent voters, who feel betrayed by Bush, are flocking to the Obama campaign and likely making a difference in this election.
4. The experience argument disappeared
It's interesting how the two presidential tickets balance each other out. One features a first-term U.S. Senator for president and a six-term U.S. Senator for vice-president. The other features a four-term U.S. Senator for president and a first-term governor for vice-president. Opposite and opposite! I concur that McCain's selection of Gov. Palin made his experience argument rather weak. Without that argument, how does a 72-year-old run against a 41-year-old superstar? Throw in Obama's massive fundraising advantage, and I like one Republican strategist's metaphor: "Like skiing uphill in downhill skis."
5. Telling independent voters to stick it
Okay, Sen. McCain didn't really say that. But when he planned to skip the first presidential debate scheduled for Sept. 26, I'm afraid many independent voters took it that way. Initially, Sen. McCain had the edge in the "Who is willing to debate more" contest as he had suggested a series of town hall meetings over the summer at which he and Obama would both answer audience questions. Afraid of embarrassment, Obama declined. At the voters' first opportunity to see the presidential contenders discuss economic issues, Sen. McCain tried to hide behind the economic crisis. I have read this was when the tide turned for the McCain campaign. He couldn't have stopped the financial crisis. But his attempt at handling it went very badly. He pretended he had to suspend his campaign. Look, he's not Treasury Secretary or Federal Reserve Chairman. He's running for president. Act like it!