The economic crisis dealt the McCain campaign a fatal body blow. None the less, the choices that Senator McCain has made during this race will impact the margin of his defeat and the fortunes of other Republicans on the ballot. Today it's worth considering what Senator McCain could have done differently. The usual caveats about hindsight apply.
1) Avoid Faustian Bargains.
Campaigns don't begin on announcement day and Senator McCain's most fateful decision predated his. Following the election of 2000 John McCain enjoyed a national reputation as a moderate maverick who was willing to challenge the voices of intolerance within his own party and work across the partisan divide. After 9/11 Senator McCain changed course dramatically and yoked his fortunes with President Bush's. This strategy clearly helped Senator McCain capture his party's nomination -- but it left him poorly positioned to compete in a general election in the current political environment. The John McCain of 2000 would still be giving Senator Obama a run for his money -- unfortunately for him that John McCain no longer exists.
2) A Second Act for Sarah Palin.
Sarah Palin's introduction to the American public was a strong one. She helped to rally the Republican base and drew interest from blue collar voters and some women who might not have otherwise given John McCain a second look. Since then her performance has been poor. Her interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric were embarrassments and instead of rallying swing voters she spends her days on the campaign trail engaged in increasingly vitriolic attacks on Barack Obama. What if Gov. Palin had instead spent September engaged in a series of round table discussions with families struggling to balance work and family and unveiled innovative family friendly policies designed to appeal to those blue collar women who had served as the backbone of Hillary Clinton's campaign?
3) A Different VP Choice Entirely.
The choice of a VP speaks volumes to the American public about the candidate making it. Given her performance on the trail it's hard to argue that Gov. Palin has helped Senator McCain. What if he had chosen Gov. Tom Ridge, a pro-choice former Governor or former Senator Joe Lieberman instead? Either would have burnished Senator McCain's bipartisan credentials in a way that Gov. Palin did not. Would the choice of Mitt Romney have helped credential Senator McCain on the economy? At least Romney could discuss the economic collapse with some degree of knowledge.
4) Distance from George W. Bush.
George W. Bush ends his second term in office as the most unpopular President in the last fifty years. Once Senator McCain had secured his party's nomination he should have been out every day trying to find a high profile way to demonstrate that he would be a very different President than Bush had been -- especially on the issue of the economy. Instead he allowed Senator Obama and Democrats to define his prospective first term as President Bush's third. The last thing the American public wants is four more years of the last eight. Senator McCain never made a compelling case that he would do anything differently. In 1992 Bill Clinton ran as a "different kind of Democrat." in 2000 George W. Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative." Both men sought to distance themselves from unpopular associations with their own parties. That approach was arguably more important this election cycle and Senator McCain never even made a serious attempt to implement it.
5) Attempt to Define Senator Obama Earlier.
Senator McCain's efforts to hang Bill Ayers around Senator Obama's shoulders are totally irrelevent to the current mood of the country and only serve to reinforce how out of touch he is with the real concerns of the American people. They are also much too late to do any good. The swiftboating of John Kerry began in August of 2004. If John McCain had wanted to tag Senator Obama with Mr. Ayers he should have begun months earlier.
6) A Coherent Response to the Economic Crisis.
Senator McCain's response to the economic crisis -- first lauding the economy, then suspending his campaign to pass a bill that failed on its first try, threatening to skip the first debate -- was lurching, incoherent, and tone deaf. This was a critically important test in the campaign; an opportunity for voters to assess the actions of both candidates in the midst of a real time crisis. John McCain failed this test. A high profile, bipartisan summit with a mix of economists, business leaders and ordinary Americans to consider and articulate solutions to the crisis would have served Senator McCain much better.
What am I missing?
Howard Wolfson also blogs at Gotham.Acme.