Pre-Election Post-Mortem: Why Obama Lost

10/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tony Sachs Drinker of Spirits, Listener of Music, Watcher of Baseball, Writer of Words

For months I've assumed that whichever Democrat won the nomination would defeat him/herself in the general election the usual way -- not attacking hard enough, not responding to attacks, nuanced responses to difficult questions, etc. Well, this time we didn't lose it. John McCain won it by running a campaign so brilliant that it seemed to surprise even his most enthusiastic backers.

McCain came into the general election season facing what seemed to be pretty tough odds. He was an old, out-of-touch Washington insider decidedly lacking in charisma, running against not only a young and exciting Democratic candidate in Barack Obama, but also against the record of George W. Bush, the most unpopular president in modern history, with whom McCain had voted 90% of the time in the Senate.

McCain made his share of mistakes -- displaying ignorance of exactly who we're fighting in the Middle East, forgetting how many houses he owns, mocking the definition of "middle class" -- but he made up for it with a relentless attacks on Barack Obama, winning news cycle after news cycle and never letting the Democrats off their heels. Even the Dems' most effective attacks were, in retrospect, nothing more than counterpunches.

After the Democratic convention in August, Obama and Joe Biden seemed to have the wind at their backs and McCain appeared to be foundering. His choice of the unknown, relatively inexperienced governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his vice president was immediately and harshly criticized. A good chunk of Hillary Clinton voters were offended by the decision, as if McCain believed they'd vote for any woman, even one whose political views were diametrically opposed to Hillary's. The press went after her with gusto, exposing the contradictions and outright lies in her carefully stage-managed speeches. McCain seemed to have bungled, and bungled badly.

But John McCain understood one thing that Democrats, in their desire for systemic change, and even many Republicans did not. Just because the vast majority of Americans hate George Bush doesn't mean they hate what he stands for. When the Democrats chose Senator Obama as their nominee, they overshot the limits of how much change the American people were willing to accept.

American voters were ready to elect the country's first black president; they were ready to switch parties; they were ready to elect a relative newcomer to Washington; and they were ready to elect the first president born in the '60s. But they weren't ready to do all those things at once.

Palin represented change in that she was young, female and a Washington outsider, while as a self-proclaimed "hockey mom" she still embodied the conservative views that have guided the electorate to greater or lesser extents for the past 40 years. The McCain-Palin ticket even managed to define itself as the ticket of change by promising to reform Washington, while also implying that it would maintain the same set of values held by the Bush administration.

The excitement generated by Sarah Palin among the GOP's base, and the Democrats' inability to effectively neutralize her, gave the Republican ticket an unbeatable advantage. By dusting off McCain's reputation as a "maverick," they were able to position themselves simultaneously as both outsiders and insiders, newcomers and old hands. It didn't matter that the Obama-Biden could claim the same thing -- McCain and Palin got there first, and never stopped hammering home their message of "change and experience" versus "inexperienced and Washington insider."

When the mainstream media started its own vetting process of Governor Palin (something McCain seems to have done inadequately, if at all), the McCain camp resorted to a tried-and-true Republican tactic. It accused the press of a liberal bias and of "going too far" in its pursuit of details about Palin's political past as well as her private life and religious beliefs. It didn't matter that the same treatment had been dished out to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, or that both candidates had endured such hazing for far longer than Palin, or that much less was known about Palin than about any other Republican or Democratic candidate in history who had run for national office. The charges stuck, and the attacks mobilized both the Republican base and conservative swing voters, effectively neutering any negative press about Palin for the duration of the campaign.

McCain's controversial choice of Sarah Palin gave voters who were disillusioned with Republican rule but unsure about Obama a reason to "come home" and give the Republicans another chance, while still feeling they were voting for "change." It served to underscore the tactical brilliance of a man who was underestimated by both his own party and the Democrats.

The Democratic party, having lost a seemingly unloseable election, must feel the way Republicans felt in 1948 after Thomas Dewey lost what also appeared to be a sure thing right up until Election Day. Frustrated Dems can take heart in the fact that four years later, the Republicans swept Dwight Eisenhower into the White House and a Republican majority into Congress. Clinton vs. Palin in 2012, anyone?