11/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why John McCain Lost The Election (Advance Copy!)

The New York Times has an October 9 story previewing how bad things will probably be on election day for Republicans in House and Senate races. This sentence jumped out:

"Strategists for both parties say Republican House and Senate candidates are being hurt by the dip in support for Senator John McCain at the top of the ticket, frustrating Republicans who had initially viewed Mr. McCain as a strong asset who could appeal to independents and even moderate Democrats and protect Republicans in a tough year."

Last April, I first worried about McCain reclaiming his "maverick in the middle" persona once the primaries ended. I thought he'd hold his own in the south and west, then attempt a strong play for those dems who overwhelmingly chose Clinton over Obama in big electoral states from Pennsylvania to Ohio. After all, she beat the eventual Democratic nominee by over 200,000 votes in each of them, with talk of kitchen table issues. It wasn't even close. Same with Michigan, Florida, etc.

Whatever far right Republicans McCain lost for sounding "too moderate" (on, say, global warming or comprehensive immigration reform) could be replaced by untold numbers of voters within the ranks of independents and those 18 million Clinton D's. Besides, he'd have held enough of the religious right crowd with his pro-life voting record.

This was clearly his best approach to what was always going to be a difficult year for the "R" brand, and it might have limited collateral damage down the ballot. In fact, during much of the summer he polled stronger than his brand and stayed close to Obama, often within the margin of error. This represented residual goodwill from back in the days when he was Democrats' favorite Republican.

So what did he then do?

He ignored this great swath of the public, never offering a rationale for their vote. The rule in modern presidential politics is that you appeal to party activists in spring primaries and then the broader electorate in the fall campaign. McCain, nautically speaking, tacked hard starboard and stayed there, allowing Obama to claim the biggest piece of the American pie. Democrats everywhere are delighted.

You can't win if you draw up a lousy game plan. Politics, like football, is played mostly between the 20 yard lines. Instead, it was all about the Republican base, straight out of the George W. Bush playbook from 2004. McCain, who touts his experience, stayed in his own end of the field. This won't exactly "win one for the Gipper."

Indeed, conservative movers and shakers basically ordered McCain to appease the base with his vice presidential selection, and he'd already been signaling acquiescence to those one-time "agents of intolerance." Still, I feared the Palin pick would paradoxically free him to move toward the center. He did not.

Why was all of this a mistake on his part? Because everyone knows his party's base has shrunk. Take the 2006 warning shots: in the Senate, Democrats unseated six Republican incumbents, from Pennsylvania to Montana, including Rhode Island, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri. That's no fluke. In the House, Republicans lost 31 seats.

Since this Bush became president, governorships and legislatures have gone Democratic in far-flung places like Colorado, Montana, Washington State, and Arizona. Talk about westward expansion!

Meanwhile, the core of today's Republicanism, Anglo and increasingly fundamentalist, has settled largely in the southern states of the former Confederacy... and even there many natives are restless about problems at home and abroad.

It was already too late for remaking Iraq into an outlet mall, or stopping the economic tsunami. McCain had some tough odds, that's a given. Dismissing national voter trends? Limiting your pool of potential support? That's campaign malpractice 101. Ronald Reagan himself knew better, attracting millions of so-called "Reagan Democrats."

Republicans had a strategy to win the White House this year. It was flawed and out of sync with the people from the start, which is why we're ending with nothing more than vicious character attacks.

The cliché that old generals always fight the last war is true. There are plenty of reasons Team Obama won, but McCain and his foot soldiers lost because they kept drinking yesterday's wine, the Karl Rove vintage.

We'll soon see the wisdom of that, my friends.