Adam Graham
Why McCain lost
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By Adam Graham
November 5, 2008

John McCain ran an honorable campaign, but still came up short. Any Republican would have trouble in this environment, with the state of the economy, the President's approval rating, the inter-party battle for the nomination, and the lack of major domestic achievements in President Bush's second term all were millstones around McCain's neck.

Were this 2000 or 2004, Senator McCain arguably could have won, but in 2008, what was required of McCain was absolute perfection. He missed the mark, and there are some lessons for Republicans to take away from his loss:

Not every election is about national security: The GOP nominated John McCain because they thought he was going to be strong on prosecuting the War on Terror. The problem? That wasn't the issue this election revolved around. This was a domestic issues election and during the primary, Senator McCain delivered a classic line indicating that he didn't know that much about economics. There was no indication this would be a foreign policy election in the Republican Primaries, yet Republicans made it a prime determinant. This was particularly odd as only Ron Paul, among McCain's primary opponents, was uncommitted to the war on terror.

Military Service Optional: Neither President Clinton nor President-elect Obama served in the military. President Bush only served in the National Guard. Looking at the three most talked about names for 2012: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee, you see not a day of personal military service. With an all-volunteer Army, the "Did you serve?" question as an accusatory statement is dead and buried.

The Idea Deficit: While McCain talked a lot about the federal deficit, what his campaign suffered from was an idea deficit. McCain, as a candidate, believed that what he offered to the nation was himself: A leader who would bring people together to solve problems. Similar to Bob Dole in 1996, first came the candidate and then came the ideas. McCain's spending freeze proposal was added in the middle of the financial crisis, his "drill here, drill now" mantra was a departure from his Senate career that occurred because of high gas prices. McCain, throughout the campaign, remained a legislator whose craft was fine tuning legislation to help it get through the Senate. A key example of this was his return to Washington. Rather than offering a radically different alternative to the Bush Administration's $700 billion bail out, McCain proposed amendments.

This was an election where people saw big problems looming, and they wanted big solutions. McCain instead offered a timid platform. McCain was running like it was 2000. In 2000, nobody really wanted big ideas. They just wanted a President that wouldn't embarrass them.

The Reality of the Vertical Voter: Conventional wisdom has been, "Politics is not won at the right or the left, but at the center. Therefore, you nominate centrist candidates to appeal to the political center." This election blows that theory to kingdom come.

While I know some people who might fit the profile of a centrist ideologue, this election illustrates that people just don't grope for the candidate closest to the center. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has stated that most voters are not voting to move the country right or left, but up or down. Liberal Blogger Big Tent Democrat of Talkleft.com has said, "Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle."

Though, it was said by a Democrat, I would like it tattooed on the face of every pundit who goes about telling us about how the GOP needs to nominate centrists. No, the GOP needs to nominate Conservatives, and define the debate by convincing the American people that our policies will move the country upward.

Cultural Conservatism is Not a Losing Issue: The marriage Amendment in Florida ran 14 points ahead of John McCain and the Marriage Amendment in California ran 15 points ahead. There's an opportunity for Republicans who will choose leaders who seriously believe in social conservative ideas rather than merely using social conservative ideas as election stunts and wedge issues.

Public Financing=Political Suicide: If Republicans are smart, taxpayers will save more than $40 million under Barack Obama, as no candidate in their right mind will ever take public financing again. The system, as it exists currently, is little more than a provider of welfare checks for mediocre politicians. The huge Republican fundraising disadvantage, while not the only cause of Obama's victory, was a huge contributing factor.

Campaign Finance Reform=Political Crock: Our Campaign Finance laws are nonsense. Whatever arguments you can make about it being politically corrupt to let someone just walk up to a politician and write a $1 million check, it could not be worse than our current system, provided that there is full disclosure.

Time to Modernize the GOP: The Republican Party needs to become more savvy in its use of the Internet as an organizing and fundraising tool. Also, in a country where early voting is becoming increasingly popular, its time to give the old 72 Hour Get Out the Vote campaign a makeover. These are new times and despite GOP gains, the Democrats are still way out front in terms of running a 21st century campaign.

© Adam Graham

 

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Adam Graham

Adam Graham was Montana State Coordinator for the Alan Keyes campaign in 2000, and in 2004 was a candidate for the Republican nomination for the Idaho State House... (more)

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