This series, profiling the men who have gone down to particularly epic defeats in their quest for the U.S. Presidency, is nearing its end. I have only a few more “losers” to go, and this is the one that touches the most recent history, being only seven years ago. Most of the principals involved in the story of John McCain’s loss to Barack Obama in 2008 are still around and still in politics. I hear McCain himself is planning to run for another term as Senator. It’s always tricky to do fairly recent events as history, but McCain definitely belongs as one thread in the tapestry of woe that has (to date) included Horace “Toast” Greeley (1872), George “Roadkill” McGovern (1972), Alton “Wreckage” Parker (1904), Alf “Train Wreck” Landon (1936), Bob (“Wrong Way”) Dole (1996), Walter “Street Pizza” Mondale (1984), Michael “The Hindenburg” Dukakis (1988), and John “Hard Luck” Davis (1924). Yes, I made those nicknames up, but you get the point. Now we pop into the 21st century for what’s essentially a Shakespeare play performed on CNN and Fox News, but whether it’s more like King Lear or Comedy of Errors depends largely on where you sit politically.
The story of the 2008 election starts, as so many of these tales do, many years earlier, in early 2000. George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, was running for the wide-open Republican nomination, and veteran Senator and Vietnam War hero John McCain–himself the son of a World War II hero–was one of the challengers. The battleground of that nomination fight came down to South Carolina, where Bush bested McCain in the primary due, it is believed, to some dirty campaign robocalls that were the brainchild of Bush’s political operative Karl Rove. McCain, who could never be accused of being dispassionate, seethed with resentment throughout the 2000s, but like the loyal Republican apparatchik he was, he bided his time and eventually got behind Bush’s programs. Like Iraq. Especially Iraq. Fast-forwarding to 2007, when McCain was ready to make another try, the contentious war in Iraq provided both his opportunity and his greatest handicap. Here’s where the Shakespeare begins, so put on your tights and get ready for some soliloquies.
McCain, counted out by the political press, mounted an impressive comeback and won the New Hampshire primary in early 2008. Here was his famous victory speech.
The handicap was that, by 2007, the war was going very badly for the United States, and even worse for Bush, who had dragged the Republican Party down to historic lows in polls and the esteem of most Americans. In 2006, as Iraq spiraled into civil war and American casualties got worse, Bush searched for a way to staunch the bleeding. What he came up with was the Surge, which was an infusion of more troops into the country, but also–and more importantly–a top-to-bottom overhaul of their tactics and mission. The press and public generally missed the part about the overhaul, and it looked to everyone like a raw escalation: just throwing more troops at an unwinnable war. McCain, however, supported the Surge, possibly because he recognized that the mission and tactics overhaul was the key piece. When it began working, he took the credit for being right, even though he had nothing to do with the decision. In early 2008, as things were getting better in Iraq, he rode this opportunity to a historic comeback in the polls just in time for the beginning of primary season (he’d been counted out as “dead” at the end of 2007). Besting an incredibly weak field of oafish also-rans like Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and the bizarre fringe candidate Ron Paul, by the time voting actually started in Republican states McCain was the comfortable frontrunner, and he could concentrate on preparing for the general election battle against the Democrats.
The big story of the 2008 election, however, was not the Republican side, but the Democratic one. With as badly as Republicans had botched both foreign and domestic policy during the Bush years, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that a Democrat was going to win that year. But which one? The country watched with baited breath as the protracted, knock-down, drag-out duel between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama stretched on month after agonizing month. And where was McCain during all this? Flying around, meeting folks, raising some money…but he was not doing what he should have been doing, which was making a decision on a running mate. Perhaps he realized that his VP selection was the only chance he had to regain control of the nation’s political narrative; perhaps not. But he definitely didn’t hurry. In fact, he left this crucial decision unmade for months after Obama finally clinched the Democratic nomination in early June. By August, as Obama headed to a Democratic Convention that was more of a coronation, McCain still hadn’t made up his mind.
McCain’s last-minute decision is said (by some advisers) to have been made in part to burnish his image as a “maverick,” which was a common campaign theme.
Historically speaking, McCain’s VP choice in 2008 was much higher-stakes than a running mate choice usually was in a Presidential campaign, and his choice was much more crucial to his campaign than was Obama’s that year. A candidate can survive a disastrous VP choice, as George H.W. Bush did in 1988 (with Dan Quayle) and George W. Bush did in 2000 (with Dick Cheney), but McCain had to thread a much tinier needle than the Bushes did. His choice had to unite a fractious party that didn’t fully trust him, especially on social issues, but also break through the triumphant-Obama narrative that had crystallized in the public mind and have a hope of exciting average voters. Perhaps no one he chose could have done these things, and toward the end he was seriously considering going with Joe Lieberman, who had run as Gore’s VP choice in 2000. But his campaign advisers convinced him this would be a terrible mistake. With most other potential choices squarely in “establishment” territory, McCain reached outside the box. In late August, the world learned the name Sarah Palin.
In retrospect, the choice of the virtually unknown Alaska governor as a candidate for Vice-President of the United States may well go down as one of the worst political decisions in American history. But at the time it seemed almost reasonable. Her lack of national recognition meant the campaign could introduce her to the people on their terms; she was popular in Alaska, could excite conservative voters and frustrated the white-male stereotype that was dogging the Republicans. But McCain utterly botched his big decision. The fact he’d waited so long made the “vet” done on her background and positions hasty and incomplete, missing numerous clangers–like the fact that her husband was the member of a secessionist political party–that would come back to haunt the McCain campaign. Palin withered under media scrutiny, most notably at the hands of news anchor Katie Couric, and her lack of understanding of even the most basic national policy issues was immediately apparent to the electorate. Against Joe Biden, Obama’s VP choice, Palin appeared a hopeless amateur. McCain didn’t benefit from the perception that the pick was more a campaign stunt than anything else. She drew huge crowds of conservative enthusiasts, but mainstream voters wrote her off quickly, leaving McCain in worse shape than before.
Sarah Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric resulted in a number of mock-worthy moments. This exchange about Russia was widely (mis)quoted as “I can see Russia from my house!”
The rest of the fall campaign was a nightmare for the Arizona Senator. In September the economy melted down, ushering in the Great Recession. The economic collapse probably had little substantive effect on the campaign, but it was another transgression for which voters seemed eager to punish the Republican Party. Obama bested McCain at two debates, making him look old and out-of-touch. Republican Party financial disclosures, showing staggering amounts spent on Sarah Palin’s hair and wardrobe, were widely mocked in the press. But Obama’s well-oiled fundraising machine made even these sums paltry. Democrats outspent McCain by a margin of four to one. He was doomed.
The results were unsurprising. Obama racked up 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173 and scored the highest percentage of the popular vote a Democrat ever won since LBJ’s landslide victory in 1964. Voter turnout was also at historic highs. McCain quietly went back to the Senate, where he’s been ever since. Palin, after quitting her day job as Governor of Alaska in 2009, has haunted Fox News for the past seven years, and is one of the few human beings on planet Earth whose Facebook posts are regularly considered appropriate subjects for national news coverage.
After Iraq, Katrina and economic convulsions, the appetite for significant political change in America was so prevalent in 2008 that it’s doubtful the Republicans could have won with any candidate or any electoral strategy. That desire for change was both the elevator that Obama rode to power and the sword that slew John McCain. Like so many of the Biggest Losers, he was a good guy and in most cases a pretty decent politician–but he got in line for power too late and his number couldn’t have come up at a worse time. History is a pretty harsh taskmistress in that regard.