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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Michael Sherry | Political Animal

Never is the expression that "hindsight is 20/20" truer than on the day after an election, when pundits and bloggers from coast to coast race to make the winning campaign out to be political super-geniuses while casting the losing campaign as a collection of drooling morons who can barely dress themselves in the morning. But it's a false dichotomy.

Yes, in any particular race, one campaign team is usually somewhat better than the other, and, yes, the better team tends to win more often. But having the benefit of knowing who has won often colors our perceptions of how well campaigns have been managed, making every move by the winning or losing sides seem (in retrospect) to be a stroke of political brilliance or a catastrophic blunder. To give an example, if a mere 60,000 votes in Ohio had gone the other way in 2004, the Kerry team would have been praised as visionaries and Karl Rove would have gone from Boy Genius to scapegoat in the blink of an eye.

So it is with the McCain staffers. Having lost, they are now subject to the obligatory catalogue of blunders and errors that pundits have identified as plaguing the campaign from the get-go. Many of these are accurate post-mortems, but I think dwelling excessively on the McCain campaign's mistakes fails to do justice to the incredibly tough political environment in which he was working.

Steve Schmidt, the campaign's chief from the summer on, described it like this in an interview with Time: "The moment that I will look back at as the moment deep in my gut that I knew was Sept. 29, when I was flying on a plane with Gov. Palin to Sedona for debate prep, watching the split screen on the TVs because she had a JetBlue charter, and it showed the stock market down seven, eight hundred points; it showed Congress voting down the bailout package on the other side, and then House Republicans went out and told the world that the reason that they voted against this legislation, allowed the stock market to crash, allowed the economy to be so injured, was because Nancy Pelosi had given a mean and partisan speech on the floor. And this was their response. And I just viewed it as beyond devastating and thought that at that moment running with an 'R' next to your name, in this year, was probably lethal."

In any election cycle, there are two factors at work: the nature of the political environment and the quality of the campaigns. Think of campaign quality as swimming ability and political environment as the flow of the river -- you could be Michael Phelps, but if you have to go upstream against the flow, some guy who can only doggie paddle is gonna beat you if the river's flowing his way.

Now as it happens, the river was flowing Obama's way, AND he appears to be the Michael Phelps of politics. So the McCain squad was in for a tough race. And while they actually swam pretty well, the combination of the economic meltdown, no immediate national security crisis (the Iraq war has settled down as a political issue, and Russia invaded Georgia three months too early) and the tremendous unpopularity of President George W. Bush created a terribly treacherous atmosphere for the Republican nominee. To continue our swimming metaphor, McCain basically had to swim up Niagara Falls.

There were mistakes made on the McCain side -- an assumption that low-information voters knew of his record of reform and party-challenging rebelliousness (John, they don't know what you mean when you repeat, "I wasn't elected Miss Congeniality in the Senate" over and over), a terrible fundraising structure (take our swimmer and chop off one of his arms) and a persistent inability to settle on one message and hit it home. But in the end, this race was always going to be tough for the Republican, and we'll see a better test of Obama's political skills in 2012, if the Democratic tide is slowed and the two parties are battling in still water.

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Michael Sherry is a senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at Michael.Sherry@tufts.edu.


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