If Republican contender John McCain loses two things did him in. One he couldn't control. That was the economy, not its collapse, but when it collapsed. In a look at how six of eight presidents fared since 1948 when the economy went on the rocks or appeared to go on the rocks, three were beaten and three beat back their challengers. If the economy went bad toward the end of a president's term voters were much more likely to blame and punish not just the president but also his party.
McCain was not Bush as he pointedly reminded Obama in their last debate. But he was the GOP presidential standard bearer, and he had to take the heat for the GOP's perceived economic sins. That hurt and hurt bad, and McCain's slogans and shouts about country first, and his subtle and open knocks at Bush and the GOP couldn't change that.
However, he could do something about his vice-presidential pick. But what did he do. He picked an untutored political novice for his VP who turned out to be SNL laughingstock fodder. He gambled that she could bag a big swatch of disgruntled Hillary Democratic women, rev up the Christian fundamentalists, and burnish his claim to be the Washington outsider. He left Vegas with his pockets picked clean on that one.
This was the biggest single reason why long time rock solid GOP Party regulars and a slew of Reagan and W Bush and Bush Sr. appointees did the unprecedented. They jumped ship to back Obama.
That never would have happened if McCain had done the personally smart and politically sensible thing and picked Mitt Romney as his VP choice.
The reasons for Romney went way beyond McCain's image problem and party doubts. He like Obama sold himself as the change guy who could go to Washington cut the cronyism, bureaucratic and congressional inertia, and restore public confidence. Despite all the maverick talk McCain could not shake his image as the walking embodiment of the much loathed Washington insider establishment.
Romney could have made a credible case that as a businessman and a true fiscal conservative who did business the right way, and that's not through banking, stock and brokerage conniving, speculation, wheeling dealing, and fraud. He could have helped ease the fears and the banking and big businesses of even more shocks, meltdowns, and instability. Since much of investor panic even terror is more psychology and perception of more economic doom, this would have been a major GOP and voter selling point.
Far more than McCain, Romney would have been able to make a credible case that he was not a partisan GOP hack but a Republican who actually had to embrace bipartisan politics as governor of top heavy Democratic Massachusetts who reached across the aisles to Democrats to get anything done. Getting a model health care package was a prime example of that. This would have been another colossal selling point on the campaign trail to voters.
Palin was plopped on the ticket to get social conservatives to flood the polls on Election Day. The problem is that Palin as events amply showed was a social conservative with a mini-telephone book of negatives and what she gave she also took away. Romney is a social conservative, but he's also one that social conservatives like, have confidence in, and would also have gotten behind albeit if not exactly with passion. But that would've mattered little since they had little passion for McCain. And it was the wildest stretch to think that social conservatives en masse would've voted for Obama, or would have stayed home. In the end Romney may not have been Bush, but he wasn't McCain either, and with no where else for conservatives to go, Romney would have been a plus with them.
Romney was a decade younger than McCain. Age, as race with Obama, was incessantly gabbed about as a great X Factor, for McCain. A final election days CNN poll showed that race was less a problem for Obama than originally feared. Yet a big percentage of voters still said they had huge reservations about McCain, because of his age, his health. That fear led back to Palin. There was stark horror among untold numbers of voters at the thought of having her a heartbeat away from the presidency. Romney would have done a lot to take the age and health fear offs the liability table. That would have even been more the case since the most successful presidents have been governors (with one very current exception). They bring the administrative and management skills crucial to the office.
This, of course, is just another of the great what ifs or better what might have beens of campaign 2008. Romney was not the choice, and what has to be an even dumber move apparently was not asked to play any substantial role in the campaign. That just compounded McCain's Romney blunder.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).