Where the GOP Went Wrong

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Post asked pollsters, pundits and others what went wrong for John McCain and the GOP. Below are thoughts from Ed Rogers, Carter Eskew, Alex Castellanos, Douglas Schoen, Linda Chavez, Geoff Garin, Greg Mueller and Dick Morris.


White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; group chairman of BGR Holding

Let the autopsy begin! Despite John McCain's history of independence, the case for a third term for the GOP was very hard to make. The political environment could not have been worse: an unpopular incumbent; an unpopular, costly war; and an economic calamity. Also, the campaign that has the most money, that makes the fewest mistakes and that has the candidate who makes the best presentation often wins.

The McCain campaign added to all of the negative circumstances: McCain's decision to suspend his campaign and rush back to Washington to associate himself with an unpopular Bush economic program -- the Wall Street "bailout" -- was inexplicable. And Sarah Palin never fully recovered from her interview with Katie Couric. How could that possibly have been a good idea?

Republicans need to respect the legitimacy of our defeat. We didn't just lose; we got beat. While the GOP should stand up against bad policy, we should not make excuses or pretend this was a fluke. Republicans must learn from this and come back with a clear purpose and a clear definition of what being a Republican means.


Chief strategist for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign

The short answer is that they steered by the lights of passing ships rather than the stars. The Republicans chose tactics -- the "celebrity" ad, the choice of Sarah Palin, suspending the campaign -- designed to win a news cycle rather than sticking to a strategy that could win the election. But, in fairness, was there a winning strategy for John McCain in such a year as this?

The maverick route of 2000, perhaps? The irony is that McCain spent the past four years morphing from what the voters wanted into a diluted Republican. And he also seemed disadvantaged by a disorganized campaign. Presidential campaigns are like diving bells that go deep into ever-increasing pressure. If the structure isn't sound, the rivets pop.


Media consultant to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and unpaid, occasional adviser to the McCain campaign

It took an economic meltdown to beat John McCain. His campaign was more successful than it had any right to be. He swam upstream against a hugely unpopular Republican president, a horribly unpopular Republican Party and an unpopular war. And even then the contest was tied after the GOP convention.

When America has felt lost and uncertain about its prospects, as it does today, it has often searched for transformational leaders to steer it into the future -- FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan. Was it within McCain's power to be that man? No. His campaign created a great narrative, a great story, but it was only about John McCain. He did not create a narrative, as Obama did, about where he would lead us and about where we, as Americans, were going. That, perhaps, was his failing. The bigger question is: Who built the Republican Party that doomed him?


Democratic pollster and author

John McCain chose symbols over substance and, in so doing, lost any chance to demonstrate that he was really the bipartisan maverick who galvanized Democrats, Republicans and independents in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries.

McCain's biggest mistake was not going with his instincts and picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate. This would have allowed McCain to run a campaign based on bipartisanship and results-oriented policies -- what was best for the American people -- and not one geared toward the GOP's right wing. The Republican brand would have been significantly reduced as a factor, if not eliminated, had the McCain-Lieberman team rebranded their ticket as a bipartisan national movement for reconciliation, revitalization and leadership.

Even the convention-floor fight such a choice might have sparked would have benefited McCain enormously, validating his independence and centrism and making clear that he would not kowtow to anyone or any special interest.

This ticket's strength and experience would have made a general election campaign based on who is best prepared to lead America far more credible. The choice of Sarah Palin -- Miss August, and clearly not Miss November -- vitiated that possibility because of her obvious lack of qualifications.

McCain's other big mistake was how he handled the bailout. It is not just that he was erratic, unfocused and too political. He missed an enormous opportunity to develop his own plan, and he should have distanced himself from the Bush administration's first initiative, which he could have branded the Bush-Obama plan. By appearing indecisive in a crisis, he lost an opportunity to strengthen his economic credentials. He should have sensed the anger in the country toward the bailout -- anger that continued through Election Day -- and developed a less expensive, more fiscally prudent plan.


Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity; former member of the Reagan administration

Given the financial crisis that materialized in September, I'm not sure there was anything McCain or the Republican Party could have done differently that would have changed the outcome. Nonetheless, many of the GOP's most grievous wounds were self-inflicted.

The Republican brand has traditionally been identified with competence and fiscal responsibility. But mishandling of the war in Iraq, the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the failure to recognize and avert the housing and credit crises have undermined that association. Neither President Bush nor the Republican-controlled Congress behaved as fiscal conservatives, weakening the argument that Republicans can be trusted to manage the people's money better than Democrats.

The party will have to reassure Americans on both these fronts to have any hope of recapturing the White House or Congress. But even this will not be enough unless the GOP once again becomes the party of opportunity. That means reaching out beyond its comfort zone. If it does not attract more new Americans -- notably, Hispanic immigrants and their American-born children -- the GOP cannot become a majority party again.


Democratic pollster and strategist

While I enjoy seeing the Republicans wallow in their misery, I would note three things:

First, who thought it was a good idea to spend the last week of the campaign railing against "spreading the wealth"? Americans understand that during the Bush years the rich got richer and the middle class got poorer, and they are angry about it. When McCain went on (and on and on) about his moral indignation that Barack Obama wanted to redress that imbalance, he was indignant about the wrong problem. His tone-deafness only confirmed that on economics, he saw the world through George Bush's eyes.

Second, saying that "government is the problem" was okay for Reagan's inaugural, but it was politically untenable in today's economy. Exit polls Tuesday showed that, by an eight-percentage-point margin, voters said that government should be doing more rather than less -- an 11-point swing from four years ago. The Republicans were even less competitive this year than in 2004 among those who want government to be involved in solving problems. Americans may be skeptical of government's effectiveness, but they want it on the playing field. They don't think the GOP does.

Third, while Republicans may have gained some momentary advantages by engaging in the culture wars (and might do so again from time to time), in the longer sweep they have paid a steep price by identifying themselves as wanting to turn back the clock on what many Americans, especially younger ones, accept as progress that comes with changing times.


Republican strategist and former senior aide to the Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan presidential campaigns

Numerous surveys agree that the Republican Party has lost its conservative bearings. While America is still center-right, voters no longer see the GOP as a center-right party. When Republicans govern or run campaigns rooted in conservative issues, they win elections -- Reagan in '80 and '84; Bush in '88 as the Reagan heir; the Contract With America in 1994; and George W. Bush running as a limited-government, cultural conservative in 2000 and 2004. But when the GOP strays from these issues, ignores them or governs against them, it leads to stinging defeat, as witnessed in 1992, 2006 and 2008.

As the GOP looks forward, it must prepare to join with Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom ran as center-right candidates, to block the numerous far-left policies that will be advocated by the Obama administration and marshaled through by the liberal leadership in Congress. Expectations for Obama and the Democrats over the next four years are astronomical. There will be an internal fracturing between the far left of the Democratic Party and the moderate wing, combined with a propensity to overreach on issues such as shutting down free speech and secret union ballots via the "Fairness Doctrine" and "card check" legislation, raising taxes, increasing spending, and advocating the Freedom of Choice Act, which provides for taxpayer-funded abortion on demand. In politics, there is always a silver lining.


Adviser to Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign and a contributor to Fox News

Had McCain voted against the bailout of Wall Street firms and backed the Republican alternative, there is no question in my mind that he would have won. After calling attention to his "suspension" of his campaign, McCain compliantly and supinely embraced the Bush bailout backed by the Democrats. America was waiting for him to speak out against excessive government spending and against bailing out Wall Street firms for their greed.

Some will blame the war in Iraq for McCain's defeat. Others will cite the economic crisis. But had McCain had the courage of his convictions, it would have sent a message to all voters that he was determined to change business-as-usual in Washington. By bowing to conventional wisdom, he undid the entire work of his convention and contradicted his message of independence from President Bush. His willingness to vote for the bailout package, earmarks and all, belied his pretensions of independence.

McCain frequently said that he would rather do the right thing than be president. But his vote for the bailout turned out to wrong.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company