With three weeks to go and public opinion polls indicating that Barack Obama's lead is growing, pundits left and right belatedly agree that John McCain is foundering because his negative campaigning fails to address the serious issues the American people care about most.
The most sympathetic explanation for the McCain campaign's problems rest with President Bush, an albatross McCain willingly risked wearing for most of the past eight years in an effort to curry favor with the GOP's right wing. Even among his detractors, few could have imagined Bush descending so low as to make comparisons with Herbert Hoover an insult to our 31st President.
But if McCain's fate was doomed by the incompetence of President Bush and the economic crisis consuming the nation, his campaign's choices under duress reveal both a striking lack of courage and leadership required to surmount large obstacles in his path, and a political failure to understand and learn from elections past.
America's most recent crisis prior to the current meltdown of trust in financial institutions was the coordinated terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Just one year later, after months of arguing it was only dealing with the "unfinished business" remaining from the Persian Gulf war of 1991, and that there was no need to go to the United Nations or to Congress for approval to use force against Iraq, the Bush administration changed its mind and gave Democrats a giant spoonful of "beware what you wish for."
After insisting the President could not act without Congressional approval, the Democratic leadership was mortified when Bush finally agreed and they realized the momentous debate and vote were timed to occur right before the 2002 midterm elections. By October, 2002, many Democrats were desperate to change the subject to traditional winning issues employed over the years, such as health care and prescription drugs.
Of course, though these unattended domestic problems were legitimate topics, the context was all wrong, and Democrats looked badly out of touch when they tried to shift debate away from the national security issues weighing on voters' minds. Unsurprisingly, Democrats were punished by the electorate, and though they may not have been able to win a debate on foreign policy in 2002, voters surely would have credited Democrats for a seriousness of purpose and a willingness to engage on the right issues.
The question today is why John McCain has followed the same path to failure. Personal attacks on Obama are said to be the equivalent of "Hail Mary" passes by a team facing almost certain defeat. But given the panic and anger of the American public coping with the loss of retirement savings, college funds for their children and increasing job insecurity, McCain's obviously desperate Hail Mary has been thrown in an empty stadium, with the Senator playing a meaningless game.
Just like the Democrats in 2002, the only winning prospect, however remote, is to stop wasting time and effort on futile and ridiculous ploys, and to engage a public anxiously looking for leadership that has ideas and maybe even some solutions about today's challenges.
It's possible our potential leaders are so out of touch with reality that the learning curve is simply too steep for them to make necessary political corrections. When John McCain avers that the economy's fundamentals are strong in the same week that the global economy begins its tumble, the hole likely is too big for him to escape. But we'll never know what might have happened had McCain returned to Washington during the recent Congressional debate and offered a serious set of proposals, carving out populist prescriptions harkening back to McCain's own one-time independent politics instead of the gimmickry that has set him back even further.
In 1971, Graham Allison's seminal Essence of Decision about the Cuban Missile Crisis offered alternative perspectives to the "rational actor" model to explain how and why decisions are made. Allison posited the "organization process" model and a "bureaucratic" model, arguing for the possibility that decision-making may well be a product of less obvious, sometimes collective, impulses negotiated by unseen players imbued with their own narrow motives and goals.
Is it possible that somewhere in each party's DNA there is an unavoidable impulse to retreat to certain tried and true tactics and strategies that occasionally have proven successful, even when external circumstances would seem to argue for another approach?
After all, in 2002, it was not just the Democratic congressional leadership that wanted to run a campaign on domestic issues rather national security. Democratic pollsters, media consultants and other campaign advisers were in their comfort zone after a lifetime of beating the hell out of Republicans paying scant attention to middle class concerns. And Republican operatives for at least 40 years similarly have loved to go back to the bountiful well of rhetoric vilifying and denigrating Democrats for a supposed lack of patriotism and attention to America's security interests.
For McCain, it's almost certainly too late to recover from so many self-inflicted wounds. He has become irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign. In truth, this campaign has always been about two people: George Bush and Barack Obama. Any one of the three strikes against Bush would be enough to saddle a GOP candidate with too heavy a burden to overcome: two long wars executed with inexplicable incompetence, and ideological and personal rigidity; the natural disaster of Katrina exacerbated by the man-made disasters of a seemingly indifferent and inept administration; and the economic chickens coming home to roost under a laissez faire policy on steroids.
There is a big difference between impotence and irrelevance. Our President is impotent, proving almost daily he has no ability to affect change, to inspire even a shred of confidence, or manage a crisis. But as a destructive force, he is hardly irrelevant. Does anyone doubt that House Democrats and Republicans alike were reluctant to approve the so-called bailout because it would have handed the Administration $700 billion with no strings attached? Ultimate approval of the bill required a massive suspension of belief in the virtue of experience over hope.
Obama figured out two years ago that this was a "change" election, and everything since then has reinforced the wisdom of that judgment. Though he continues to have to work much harder than he should to demonstrate that he ought to be the recipient of the expectations Americans place on their President, he remains remarkably unaffected, at least publicly, by the putrid smell of the trash thrown his way by an opponent, and an entire party, that has lost its way.
The writer is President of The Kurz Company, an international communications firm.