What Went Wrong with the McCain Campaign

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An African American candidate, with the name Barack Hussein Obama, started off the campaign with huge negatives piled up against him and for which he must compensate every day. Why is someone with all the advantages of white privilege trailing so badly against someone who has had the deck stacked against him from the get-go?

[Election 2008]


Leave it to Time magazine to sugarcoat the trends in the 2008 Presidential election and to soft-pedal the “real politik” of the McCain-Palin campaign.

In an article just released by Time’s Washington correspondent Michael Scherer, entitled “McCain's Struggles,” Scherer makes the rather non-compelling argument that one of the two primary variables in McCain’s campaign “losing ground” is beyond the candidate’s control: the financial crisis not only facing the United States, but the world at large.

It’s an excuse-as-explanation for the McCain-Palin team that basically excludes them from responsibility for the overwhelming loss they are facing come Election Day.

The problem with that explanation is that the Obama-Biden ticket is facing the same crisis. The difference is that voters by an overwhelmingly large margin feel that Obama has a far greater command of economic issues than does McCain. So the difference isn’t in the crisis itself, but how the two campaigns have engaged it.

What Time doesn’t state is the obvious: that an African American candidate, with the name Barack Hussein Obama, started off the campaign with huge negatives piled up against him and for which he must compensate every day. So the real question that needs to be asked is this: Why is someone with all the advantages of white privilege trailing so badly against someone who has had the deck stacked against him from the get-go?

Let me answer the question in two words: Rick Davis.

Davis, of course, is John McCain’s campaign manager, and while Davis is never once mentioned by Scherer, Davis has, in fact, orchestrated every bad decision made by McCain during the final, critical months of the campaign.

Let’s take a look at four of them:

1) The selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. This one, of course, got foisted on McCain, and while there has been a surge from the conservative Republican base since Palin’s selection, support from moderate Republicans for the ticket has gone soft—and from independents it’s gone south.

Mainstream America simply does not view Palin as qualified for the position—let alone the presidency should something happen to the 72-year-old McCain.

Time claimed that Palin didn’t get the “crash course” she needed. Come now? You could send the woman to six universities and she wouldn’t be sufficiently schooled. She is at best a gimmick; at worst, she’s a fraud.

Is there anyone out there now who seriously believes that the Republicans would be behind in states like Florida or Iowa or even New Hampshire with the VP selection that McCain really wanted—Joe Lieberman—on the ticket?

Davis, a Navy brat who learned his politics in the Republican heartland of Alabama, simply is clueless when it comes to understanding the dynamics of the national polity. To watch him in these final days of the campaign is to see someone truly out of touch with mainstream America. He’s nearly as clueless as Palin.

Moreover, Davis and Co. clearly had not vetted Sarah Palin properly. Not only was there far more to the Troopergate investigation than she initially let on, her intellectual deficiencies are manifestly apparent to anyone who engages her in serious political discussion.

Davis was clearly using his wrong head when he made the Palin decision. That selection alone has cost McCain a 6-to-8 percent cumulative deficit in the polls.

2) John McCain told Barack Obama in the debate the other night that he wasn’t George Bush. He should have told Rick Davis that long ago. The entire McCain campaign strategy has been to hold those states won by Bush in 2004 and to do it in the same manner that Bush did—once again, by appealing to the conservative, right-wing base of the party.

The trouble is: John McCain is not George Bush—even though Davis has tried to reconfigure him as such. I honestly believe that the deep anger boiling at the surface of McCain’s psyche is that he’s having to sound like a conservative Republican to win the Presidency. I believe he is angry about being saddled with the likes of Palin. He can spin it otherwise in public, but John McCain has never been one to suffer fools gladly, and Sarah Palin is a fool. And to have her upstage McCain on the campaign trail must doubly stick in his craw.

Trying to mimic the Karl Rover electoral strategy has failed McCain and failed him badly. The real John McCain is indeed a maverick, someone who reached across the isle during his lengthy career in the Senate. He’s actually a pretty likable guy. Had that been the John McCain who debated Barack Obama in each of the three presidential debates, rather than the angry conservative, does anyone think that McCain would have lost to Obama with two-to-one margins by independents watching the debate?

McCain is a maverick, but he’s a moderate maverick, and while he had to appeal to the base to win the Republican primary, his one possible course to victory in the general election would have been to move to the middle. Davis had him trot off the other way. There’s another 4 to 6 percent.

3) The right-wing harping on Obama has backfired. If it didn’t work for Hillary Clinton to bring up the likes of Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright, why in the hell did Davis think it would work a second time around when the American voters had already rejected it in the first place? Poll after poll shows that it’s not working, but, today, Palin is out there calling Obama a “socialist” as if it were 1952. It’s great for organizing the Democratic base, which has been all the more unified since Palin was named to the ticket. Would Lieberman be out there looking like Joe McCarthy in drag? Hardly. Call it another 2-to-3 percent advantage for Obama.

4) McCain has tried to make it a campaign about Obama’s character. The American people want to hear about issues.

Perhaps Davis didn’t watch the Democratic primary closely enough. But both Democrats and Republicans saw Obama hold his cool against attacks from both Hillary and Bill Clinton. He didn’t flinch. The American people already knew that Obama had the poise and temperament to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

Joe Biden says there’s not a racist bone in John McCain’s body (I’m not so sure of that, and will discuss that more in a later column, but let’s take him at his word for now). Rick Davis is riddled with racism and his entire campaign has been fueled, if not guided, by racist underpinnings and assumptions. He assumed that racist concerns would play in Peoria—and they simply have not to a great degree. He was projecting his own concerns onto the American people. If it’s a Black candidate, then of course you have to challenge his or her character. That one got played out by the Clintons. Give two more points to Obama.

What could have McCain done to win the election?

Rather than challenging Obama’s character, McCain should have been highlighting his own foreign policy experience, particularly in the Middle East, rather than harp on a couple of missteps by Obama early in the campaign.

He should have crafted a positive, uplifting campaign message, with an optimistic vision for America. That is at the heart of Obama’s campaign, and it’s now why he’s winning in the polls. Obama does not walk on water and he does have limits to his experience and he’s made a handful of mistakes along the campaign trail. 

But by fashioning a campaign based on fear and negativity, hatred and doubt, John McCain now finds himself with an awfully steep hill to climb between now and Election Day. He had every opportunity to win this campaign against a relative newcomer with a challenging name. But just as with Hillary Clinton, he has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory—because those who constitute his inner-circle have drastically misread the American people and, as a result, they have crafted an overarching campaign strategy based on failure.


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Black Star News national affairs columnist Geoffrey Dunn, Ph. D., is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist. He is the former recipient of a both a John L. Senior Fellowship to the Cornell University Graduate School of Government and a National Newspaper Association Award for Investigative Journalism. His most recent film is Calypso Dreams.




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