The Campaign Autopsy
In my previous life, I witnessed far more difficult postmortems. This one is easy. The patient was fatally stricken on Sept. 15 -- caught in the rubble when the roof fell in (at Lehman Brothers, according to the police report) -- although he did linger until his final, rather quiet demise on Nov. 4.
In the excitement and decisiveness of Barack Obama's victory, we forget that in the first weeks of September, John McCain was actually ahead. Then Lehman collapsed, and the financial system went off a cliff.
This was not just a meltdown but a panic. For an agonizing few days, there was a collapse of faith in the entire financial system -- a run on banks, panicky money-market withdrawals, flights to safety, the impulse to hide one's savings under a mattress.
This did not just have the obvious effect of turning people against the incumbent party, however great or tenuous its responsibility for the crisis. It had the more profound effect of making people seek shelter in government.
After all, if even Goldman Sachs was getting government protection, why not you? And offering the comfort and safety of government is the Democratic Party's vocation. With a Republican White House having partially nationalized the banks and just about everything else, McCain's final anti-Obama maneuver -- Joe the Plumber spread-the-wealth charges of socialism -- became almost comical.
We don't yet appreciate how unprecedented were the events of September and October. We have never had a full-fledged financial panic in the middle of a presidential campaign. Consider. If the S&P 500 were to close at the end of the year where it did on Election Day, it will have suffered this year its steepest drop since 1937. That is 71 years.
At the same time, the economy had suffered nine consecutive months of job losses. Considering the carnage to both capital and labor (which covers just about everybody), even a Ronald Reagan could not have survived. The fact that John McCain got 46 percent of the electorate when 75 percent said the country was going in the wrong direction is quite remarkable.
However crushing the external events, McCain did make two significant unforced errors. His suspension of the campaign during the economic meltdown was a long shot that not only failed, it created the McCain-the-erratic meme that deeply undermined his huge advantage over Obama in perception of leadership.
The choice of Sarah Palin was also a mistake. I'm talking here about its political effects, not the sideshow psychodrama of feminist rage and elite loathing that had little to do with politics and everything to do with cultural prejudices, resentments and affectations.
Palin was a mistake (" near suicidal," I wrote on the day of her selection) because she completely undercut McCain's principal case against Obama: his inexperience and unreadiness to lead. And her nomination not only intellectually undermined the readiness argument. It also changed the election dynamic by shifting attention, for days on end, to Palin's preparedness, fitness and experience -- and away from Obama's.
McCain thought he could steal from Obama the "change" issue by running a Two Mavericks campaign. A fool's errand from the very beginning. It defied logic for the incumbent-party candidate to try to take "change" away from the opposition. Election Day exit polls bore that out with a vengeance. Voters seeking the "change candidate" went 89 to 9 for Obama.
Which is not to say that Obama did not run a brilliant general election campaign. He did. In its tactically perfect minimalism, it was as well conceived and well executed as the electrifying, highflying, magic carpet ride of his primary victory. By the time of his Denver convention, Obama understood that he had to dispense with the magic and make himself kitchen-table real, accessible and, above all, reassuring. He did that. And when the economic tsunami hit, he understood that all he had to do was get out of the way. He did that too.
With him we get a president with the political intelligence of a Bill Clinton harnessed to the steely self-discipline of a Vladimir Putin. (I say this admiringly.) With these qualities, Obama will now bestride the political stage as largely as did Reagan.
But before our old soldier fades away, it is worth acknowledging that McCain ran a valiant race against impossible odds. He will be -- he should be -- remembered as the most worthy presidential nominee ever to be denied the prize.