John McCain lost the election for many reasons: Bush's failed presidency, the economy, the Wall Street meltdown at the most inopportune time, the disastrous bet on towering ignoramus Sarah Palin, and not least the lavishly financed, nearly flawless campaign by his opponent, already a singular figure in American political history.
It's a testament to McCain's own place in the political pantheon, and the reservoir of goodwill it confers, that he lost by only five points in the popular vote.
Still, in the anatomy of a thrashing, it's foolish not to cast a gimlet eye on the McCain campaign itself. Because strategically and executionally, it was not merely a disaster; it was an embarrassment -- whatever "it" was, because "it" was a moving target. Over the course of two months, McCain's marketing messages were, variously:
1) Country first. 2) Maverick. 3) Don't listen to those ridiculous, un-American, liberal, intellectual, coastal elites. 4) Barack Obama is a superficial celebrity. 5) Tested. 6) Change. 7) Obama is a dangerous unknown quantity. 8) Obama is a socialist.
He should have stopped after No. 2, exactly as Obama never stopped talking about the economy, health care and education over and over and over and over no matter what flak the Republicans were shooting in his direction. He was relentless; McCain was reactive.
Obviously, the reaction didn't happen in a vacuum. The campaign was following the polls and, as we in the punditocracy like to say, throwing red meat to the base. But that was the biggest blunder of all -- first because this election hinged not on the GOP base but on undecideds and independents, and secondly because the base McCain tried whipping into a frenzy wasn't his base at all. It was George Bush's base. Karl Rove's base. This created cognitive dissonance, a weird vibe of expediency, pandering, hypocrisy and crooked talk that undermined a priceless political image 30-some years in the making.
McCain the maverick became a mythic figure and media darling precisely by not pandering, not cleaving to the party line, not sullying himself in the culture wars, not pitting some vague "us" against some sinister "them." His race for the nomination against George Bush in 2000 offered some ominous hints -- such as his visit to Bob Jones University as supplicant to the Religious Right -- but his 2008 performance was a ghastly spectacle of naked opportunism, an America hero surrendering principle to ambition at every step.
This was infuriating, and sad, but also completely unnecessary.
We're no big fans of commodifying war heroism (or, more accurately, prisoner-of-war heroism); it's distasteful and ultimately illogical. After all, lots of brave warriors have no business being president. The silver star in his logo therefore made us a bit queasy. Still, the righteousness of national service is a powerful ideal that McCain has more claim to than most. Moreover, his media-documented maverickness dovetailed perfectly. When you put your country first, you put principle ahead of politics.
That, my friends, is a brand.
A brand whose meaning the campaign began to destroy before the Republican convention ever adjourned. The selection of Ms. Palin, followed quickly by the assault on the media and other supposed elites, was an announcement to the world that John McCain -- erstwhile man of principle -- now stood for nothing but election.
It was a transparent deal with the devil, descending as the weeks went on to ever more agonizing circles of hell. A brand burned to cinders. A mythic figure transmogrified into a mythical beast. John McCain promised change, and on that promise he tragically delivered.