David Grann on Why McCain Lost
I began David Grann’s New Yorker piece about John McCain, “The Fall,” in a magnanimous yet suspicious mood. What could Grann tell me about the campaign that I didn’t already know?
But as I read, I began to sense in John McCain (again) a tragic figure out of Shakespeare: The honorable man who once lost honorably (in 2000), yet who betrays that honor in order to try to win (in 2008). Worse, he betrays it with the same men who had dishonored him during his defeat. Worse, despite all he gives up, all he pretends to be in order to win, he loses. Badly. The dishonorable and divisive methods used to defeat him, are, when employed by him, part of the reason for his defeat. To get what he desires he becomes his enemy, but by becoming his enemy he is kept from getting what he desires.
Somewhere in Grann's piece I not only began to feel sorry for McCain but identify with him. Most of us lose in life more than we win, and, despite being a U.S. senator, McCain lost big. Twice. He knew 2008 was his last chance and he gave up everything for it.
In the process, because of all that he gave up and all that he pretended to be, long-time allies turned against him. William G. Milkien, former Republican governor of Michigan, who endorsed him in 2000 and again during the 2008 primaries, said in October, “McCain keeps asking, ‘Who is the real Barack Obama?,’ but what I want to know is who is the real John McCain?” Frank Schaeffer, son of the man credited with starting the religious right, who backed McCain in 2000, and for whose 2006 book “AWOL,” McCain offered a blurb, said the following, again in October, in an open letter to the candidate:
“If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as ‘not one of us,’ I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence. ... You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations.”
I’ve written about what McCain said about John Lewis during the final debate, and Lord knows I was pissed off then, but my anger softened when I read this:
Though McCain publicly called [Lewis’] accusations “shocking and beyond the pale,” a campaign aide told me that when McCain first heard Lewis’s remarks he sat in silence inside the campaign’s official bus.
So I was feeling a little sympathetic for John McCain.
Then Mark Salter opened his piehole.
Salter still doesn’t understand any of the criticisms of McCain and the way that he and Steve Schmidt (his Iago) ran his campaign. He accuses the press of a double standard that favored Obama. He fobs it all off on the “liberal media.” He brings up the few positives McCain did (his poverty tour, his town-hall suggestion) and all he didn’t do (playing the Rev. Wright card), and thinks that’s enough to demonstrate his candidate’s positive side — not bothering to explain away the reactions of Milkien and Schaeffer, let alone McCain’s own brother, Joe, who pleaded with the campaign to let McCain be McCain. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Where’s the old happy warrior?’ It was fucking crazy,” Salter says.
The best response to Salter is Grann’s next graf:
But many who hoped that McCain could modify his policies without sacrificing his identity felt that he had crossed the line. He surrounded himself with conservative economic advisers, such as Phil Gramm, a fanatical proponent of deregulation, and Jack Kemp, the apostle of supply-side economics. He called for making Bush’s tax cuts permanent. He declared that the estate tax, which he, like Teddy Roosevelt, had championed, was now “one of the most unfair tax laws on the books.” ... [He] reversed his position on offshore drilling and endorsed the teaching of “intelligent design.” He disowned his own bill on immigration reform. Whereas he had once decried the use of torture under any circumstances, he now voted against banning the same techniques of “enhanced interrogation” that had been practiced against him in Vietnam.
This election won’t truly be over until the side that lost realizes why it lost. Yes, it was the economy. But it was also who was the stronger candidate, and who was the weaker. In Ryan Lizza’s piece on Obama’s campaign, in which Obama comes off as a tougher Chicago pol than people give him credit for, the “crucial moment” for many aides came way back in July 2007 when, during the YouTube debate, Obama said he would meet world leaders without preconditions. Hilary pounced. The aides worried. They were thinking about backing off, changing the subject, bobbing and weaving, when Obama, overhearing, spoke up:
“This is ridiculous. We met with Stalin. We met with Mao. The idea that we can’t meet with Ahmadinejad is ridiculous. This is a bunch of Washington-insider conventional wisdom that makes no sense. We should not run from this debate. We should have it.”
In Grann’s piece on McCain, here’s the key moment:
Just before the Republican Convention, McCain, who often seemed miserable in his new right-wing guise, tried to resurrect his former identity. He decided to choose as his running mate Joe Lieberman—a pro-choice Democrat who shared McCain’s views on foreign policy. The choice would have signalled both McCain’s independence and his return to a more bipartisan agenda. “He wanted Lieberman badly,” a McCain confidant said. But when leaders of the base threatened to challenge him at the Convention, McCain did the one thing that he believed a great politician never did. As the confidant put it, “John capitulated.
One candidate stood up to his aides, one didn’t. One candidate ran his show, the other let it run him. One won, the other lost — not just the campaign but himself. It’s tragic, yes, Shakespearean even, but only for the candidate, not for us. By losing, in fact, you could say John McCain finally lived up to his campaign’s motto: He put country first.