Last night's second presidential debate proved that the presidential election is over.
To his credit, Senator John McCain has decided to accept an honorable defeat at the hands of Senator Barack Obama instead of the ignominy of losing the mud-slinging contest being urged on him by his advisors.
Like Roger Federer losing in five sets to Rafal Nadal in this year's Wimbledon championship, for McCain it is better to keep your head up high and come back to play another day. This year may mark McCain's last chance to become president, but he can emulate Senator Edward Kennedy in continuing to serve his country with distinction and honor as a senior U.S. senator.
With a barrage of polls this week indicating that the voting public - especially in key battleground states - is moving steadily to Obama's side of the ledger, McCain could have come out swinging and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Obama. As Obama seized the upper hand on the economic issues, McCain's advisors told him this was his only chance. Governor Sarah Palin had been holding a dress rehearsal for McCain with lines smearing Obama, like "he's palling around with terrorist who would target their own country."
For his part, Obama declared that he would not throw the first punch, but he would counterpunch. He warned McCain that if he threw the "guilt by association" mud ball at him, McCain would get the "Keating Five" mud ball splattered all over his face. McCain wisely backed down.
In fairness to John McCain, he is up against an extraordinary opponent who is far better organized and calmer in a crisis, and who has a better grasp of complex subjects like the economic mess we are in. Just as Senator Hillary Clinton learned in the primaries, it is extremely difficult to compete simultaneously with Obama's unwavering strategy and his unrelenting organization on the ground.
The current economic crisis hasn't helped McCain's case either. Americans are deeply worried about their financial futures and angry about having to bail out Wall Street. Yet all McCain can offer is the trimming of a few earmarks. During the recent near-panic in the credit markets, Obama has proven himself to be a very good listener and a good learner. He has steadily supported those in charge of taking action to avoid even deeper problems, without trying to attract attention or credit for himself.
In retrospect, McCain would be in a more competitive position today had he chosen former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as his running mate. Romney was a successful businessman and leader of one of the nation's largest states who has a keen grasp of economics and financial markets. Like Palin, Romney is a social conservative.
But like the fighter pilot of his earlier years, McCain opted for a diversionary tactic in selecting Palin, in spite of having met her only once at a governors conference. With that impulsive move, he simultaneously wiped out his experience advantage over Obama and his credibility to address the economic crisis.
No doubt this seemingly endless campaign will take a few more twists and turns before election day. With a hungry media waiting for any morsel that can be turned into a prime time story, the candidates will probably toss a few bones their way.
But none of this will change the outcome of the election. On November 4th, Barack Obama will be elected our next president, with more than 350 votes in the electoral college.
When he takes office in January, Senator Obama will inherit a country with massive economic problems, a failing health care system, an incoherent energy policy, and a declining public education system while being entangled in two wars. Obama will need all the wisdom, listening skills, and thoughtful advisors he can find.
Bill George is the author of best-selling books True North and Authentic Leadership, has been named one of "Top 25 Business Leaders of the Past 25 Years" by PBS, and was CEO and Chairman of Medtronic from 1991 until 2001.
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