John McCain had a tremendous opportunity at the beginning of this election. He could have presented himself as a true independent, run straight to the center, and demonstrated a consistently moderate, pragmatic policy profile. However well deserved it may have been, in the minds of the public and the media, McCain did have a "maverick" moniker, the label that identified him as someone who wasn't afraid to put principle over party when it mattered. He had gained that credibility with his stands on campaign finance reform and climate change, among other things. His 2000 election campaign slogan of "straight talk" could have actually been helpful to him.
However, it seems that between 2000, when McCain decried the far right as "agents of intolerance" and gained the respect of independents and moderates across the country, and 2008, McCain realized he needed to ingratiate himself with more of the Republican establishment. He saw firsthand how effective Karl Rove's campaign machine was at tearing down candidates when his own 2000 effort was destroyed by a malicious robocall.
That's when he made the right turn that will cost him this election.
In preparing to run for the Presidency again, McCain cozied up to the very same "agents of intolerance" he had earlier chastised. He spoke at Jerry Falwell's university. He came out on the hard right side of the abortion issue. He wavered on endorsing a constitutional amendment barring same sex marriage. He reversed himself on immigration and torture. He stuck close to Bush's side on the Iraq war. He kept referring to himself as a "maverick" even as he positioned himself on the far right of the Republican spectrum, all in an attempt to win over those conservative voters who had rejected him in the 2000 Republican primary.
To complete this transformation from moderate maverick to Rovian attack dog candidate, McCain hired some of the same people who had been in charge of the smear campaign that had destroyed his candidacy in 2000 to run his campaign for 2008. As McCain tore through his primary opponents and came out victorious, he sacrificed what little credibility he might once have had among independents and moderates. The final nail in the coffin was choosing Sarah Palin, a hard right ideologue from Alaska, as his running mate.
Meanwhile, as McCain was stripping away the last vestiges of credibility from his campaign, the Democrats came out with a strong, decisive, and, most importantly for this election, calm, cool, and collected candidate who stuck to his guns and presented exactly the kind of leadership on the economy that this race called for. While McCain ran around trying one Rovian stunt after another, each one falling flat, Obama remained steady at the "tiller," and Americans flocked to him in droves. Moderates and independents abandoned the erratic McCain campaign as it flailed around trying to find a coherent message and falling flat on its face.
The problem with a Rovian candidacy is that it only works when it can channel fear successfully at a target. A Rovian candidacy cannot deal with a real crisis in a coherent manner, because by its very nature it has no ideas of its own. Rovian strategy focuses on a candidate's weakness, and says, "attack your opponent where you are weakest, and attack your opponent where your opponent is strongest." Rovian strategy fails when its opponent is able to deflect such attacks and focus them back on the very weaknesses they were designed to conceal. And Obama has been a master of deflecting McCain's inept attacks.
Had McCain stuck to his guns and run a centrist, pragmatic campaign from the beginning, he might be leading now. In a time of economic crisis, people want experience and steady leadership. If McCain had stuck to his "straight talk" message, surrounded himself with centrist economic advisors, and chosen a moderate Republican like Chuck Hagel or Tom Ridge as his running mate, this race might look very different right now. Obama may be a formidable candidate, and the economy and political situation in this country might dramatically favor Democrats, but that doesn't mean that a Republican can't win.
The tragic irony of this election is that there is a Republican who could have beaten Barack Obama. It's the McCain who ran in 2000. Unfortunately, that candidate is long gone. In his place is a bitter and defeated old man, twice destroyed by the Rovian machine that runs the Republican party. In 2000, the machine was used against him. In 2008, that machine will destroy his campaign from the inside.