Lowry: McCain's campaign failure

The National Review columnist explains the paradox that doomed the Maverick's campaign.

Published October 28, 2008 1:38PM (EDT)

With a week to go before the presidential election, conservatives are starting to abandon ship. Some are just acting out, but Rich Lowry has a thoughtful column in which he articulates what he calls the fundamental "paradox" of John McCain's presidential bid -- namely, that his biography made him ideally suited to be the nominee in an inarguably tough cycle for Republicans, but his gadfly approach to electoral politics was ill-suited for managing a maverick-themed campaign bid. Lowry:

This is the McCain paradox: No other Republican candidate had a character and background -- as a courageously independent spirit -- better suited to making the presidential campaign competitive this year. But perhaps no Republican candidate was so poorly suited to the task of running a presidential race.

McCain earned his chops as the media's favorite Republican senator by being a maverick, or in a less exalted formulation, a gadfly. He pursued pet causes inimical to his party, such as campaign-finance reform, and made it his role to tell fellow Republicans what he considered hard truths.

None of this endeared him to Republican primary voters. He won the nomination anyway on the basis of his admirable support for the surge (adopted when he was in typical gadfly mode) and a few stock lines. He became the Republican nominee by default, without an organization or fundraising operation to speak of, and soon enough lost the press, too.

McCain's rapport with the media depended on snarky banter about his own party and about himself. That couldn’t continue in the general election, so McCain's campaign cut him off. His lifeline to his former admirers denied to him, McCain became a demonstrably unhappy warrior.

As a gadfly, McCain often attacked Republican campaign tactics. He denounced the Swift Boat vets in 2004. Still thinking like a gadfly, back in April he reprimanded the North Carolina Republican Party for running an ad featuring the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In ruling Wright out of bounds, McCain had taken off the table Barack Obama's most damaging association. McCain had gadflied himself!

McCain was, in fact, the best of a weak field of 2008 GOP hopefuls, in part because of his biography and in part because he really has voted against his party on some key issues (torture, energy, campaign finance and, for a while at least, immigration). Yet it may also be true that, given how bad the cycle was for the GOP, going negative on Obama and acting like a base conservative Republican willing to use kitchen-sink negative tactics was McCain's only strategy for winning. I guess we'll never know whether a high-road campaign might have saved him, his reputation and the Republicans' chances in 2008.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.