Why McCain will lose

I've been paying less than close attention to the race recently, as the dearth of recent blog posts indicates. My new job being very demanding, I haven't had much time at all the last ten days. But I almost feel like saying, what does it matter? What has really changed in the interim? Nothing. The state of election has remained the same. The national polls are identical. The Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Dakota polls are basically identical to what they were. Obama's gained a small lead in Florida. The Missouri, Virginia, and Pennsylvania polls have tightened in favor of McCain. The Georgia, Indiana, Arizona (!), and Arkansas polls have tightened in favor of Obama. The West Virginia polls are all over the place. The big story is Palin's wardrobe! Who cares about that. Of course she has to buy new clothes. What a non-story. You're really running out of anything substantive to talk about when this dominates two news cycles.

I'm not trying to justify my lack of blogging enthusiasm, but my forced hiatus seemingly at the worst time of the campaign has not missed anything major. The fundamental dynamics of the race has remained the same. So much in electoral politics comes down to the argument you make. McCain has been unable to make an effective argument as to why he should be president, and that's why he will lose on Tuesday.

The NYTimes a week ago had a cover story on the incarnations of McCain. There is such an eerie similarity to Hillary's loss to Obama (though she basically tied him). At first McCain was the experience candidate. The RNC are still running ads attacking Obama on this. They way the ad is phrased is "No Executive Experience." A telling phrasing -- Palin does have executive experience, so she's "most experienced" than Obama. But of course she's not. She's way more inexperienced than Obama.

The Palin pick has really blunted this line of attack. It can no longer be the main reason to elect McCain. However, that doesn't in itself mean the pick was a bad idea. Running on "experience" doesn't work anyway, in my view. If experience is so great, why is this the first time in nearly fifty years that a senator is going to be president? Senators have a greater claim to be presidential timber in terms of experience than anyone else. The reason is voters don't care about experience as a reason to elect someone. It is, rather, a threshold you have to pass in order to be a serious candidate. Once you're there, more experience doesn't help you. The problem is that Palin has issues with that threshold, making Obama look more experienced by contrast. So she has taken away this factor, but again this is not a decisive thing.

Abandoning "experience you can trust" McCain chose the "maverick change" tack with the Palin pick. That is, "Change is coming" but not such radical, untested change. Change that contrasts well with Obama's change. So McCain tried to run against Bush, against Washington, as Obama-lite. This was an interesting chess move. As I've detailed previously, it didn't work because McCain didn't take it seriously. If you are going to bring change, if you are going to be a fighter for the people against the establishment, then you can't be the candidate of bipartisanship. McCain wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to be the bipartisan candidate, which he could have laid claim to with some plausibility. He's bucked his own party to work with the other side, etc. etc. But being the candidate who plays nicely with the other children in the sandbox is a good strategy if you are ahead, and is at cross-purposes with a claim to be a maverick and shake things up.

In a highly-charged, visible race for the presidency, you have to be consistent. You can't be the candidate of change if you want to continue the policies that the party in power has implemented in the recent past. You can't be the candidate of bipartisanship if you are going to shake things up. You have to choose an argument, and hammer away at it. McCain didn't want to choose, and the bailout bill was his Rubicon. He refused to cross. I contend that he had to oppose the bill to win. The problem was that he couldn't. To oppose something with such an elite consensus behind it, a candidate has to be uber-persuasive and hyper-articulate. It is a very difficult thing to do. McCain didn't have it in him.

It is all well and good to say a candidate should do this or that, but in reality the positions a candidate can take on issues is pretty constrained. When everyone agrees that something is good or bad, you had better really know your stuff if you are going off into heterodoxy. The safe view is always the one that most people hold -- this is a democracy after all! McCain couldn't oppose the bailout because with the debates coming up, he could not persuasively make the case that the Washington consensus was wrong. So opposing the bailout was not even an option for him. I make this judgment based on McCain's debate performance. When the questions were on the economy, he would breathe heavily into the microphone, and his words sounded hesitant, like he didn't know what he was going to say next. When the questions were on foreign policy, the adrenaline went rushing through his body, and he spoke with passion and conviction. It's because he knows his stuff with foreign policy, but doesn't have a clue on economic issues.

So McCain was really in a bind. But it's not unexpected for him to be in a bind. Here is a candidate with a lot of liabilities. He's not a great speaker or stump campaigner. (In an appearance at my institution last week, McCain said "agree with Obama" rather than "disagree with Obama" and didn't catch his misstatement until he had finished a 3 minute diatribe -- it was embarrassing, and was played all over the local news.) His great asset was that he was a media darling, yet it's no contest who the media prefers when it comes to him or Obama, or even Hillary. His signature issue set is foreign policy, but he's identified with a disastrous decision on that front, the Iraq war. So it was never going to be easy for McCain. If the financial crisis had come after the debates, McCain might have been able to take a different path and oppose the bailout forcefully in sound bites and canned speeches. Not having to talk about it for extended periods of time from memory might have given him other options. But the way it played out put him in a tight spot.

Why should we elect McCain? That question has not been answered by the campaign. And that is why McCain will lose.

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The Schedule

  • Aug. 11, 2007 Iowa Straw Poll
  • Jan. 3, Iowa Caucuses
  • Jan. 5, Wyoming (R)
  • Jan. 8, New Hampshire
  • Jan. 15, Michigan
  • Jan. 19, Nevada, South Carolina (R)
  • Jan. 26, South Carolina (D)
  • Jan. 29, Florida
  • Feb. 1, Maine (R)
  • Feb. 5, SUPER DUPER TUESDAY, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado (D), Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho (D), Illinois, Kansas (D), Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico (D), New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia (R)
  • Feb. 9, Kansas (R), Louisiana, Washington, Nebraska (D)
  • Feb. 10, Maine (D)
  • Feb. 12, DC (R), Maryland and Virginia
  • Feb. 19, Hawaii (D), Washington (R), Wisconsin
  • Mar. 4, Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont
  • Mar. 8, Wyoming (D)
  • Mar. 11, Mississippi
  • Mar. 18, Colorado (R)
  • Apr. 22, Pennsylvania
  • May 6, Indiana, North Carolina
  • May 13, Nebraska (R), West Virginia (D)
  • May 20, Kentucky, Oregon
  • May 27, Idaho (R)
  • Jun. 3, Montana, New Mexico (R), South Dakota
  • Aug. 25-28, Democratic National Convention in Denver, CO
  • Sept. 1-4, Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN
  • Sep. 26, First debate at the University of Mississippi
  • Oct. 2, VP Debate at Washington University in St. Louis
  • Oct. 7, Second Debate at Belmont University in Nashville
  • Oct. 15, Third Debate at Hofstra University in NY

Election Day Countdown: