A Campaign that Changed a Lot -- and Nothing

Washington Matters

A Campaign that Changed a Lot -- and Nothing

When it became clear in the early spring that the fall campaign would be between John McCain and Barack Obama, I thought we could be witnessing a race that would be transformative for both parties. I was half right.

With Barack Obama's win,  this is going to be a far different and far more vigorous Democratic Party than we have seen for most of this decade. But the nomination of John McCain has done little to change the shape of the Republican Party, and that is a tragedy for the GOP because if it doesn't change, it will doom itself to minority status for years to come. 

If you look at some of the important turning points and decisions made by the candidates and the parties over the past year, you can see the key elements that, in the case of the Democrats, led to this transformation -- and in the case of Republicans, opportunities lost.

Let's start with the Democrats.

Message. Obama may have run in the early stages of the race as a strong anti-war candidate to contrast himself from presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton, but he also kept at the fore the broad themes he voiced at the Democratic convention in 2004 that instantly propelled him to national prominence -- the harm of partisanship and gridlock; division as a strategy for maintaining power; Washington as a tool of special interests; long-term problems affecting every American going perpetually unresolved. In short, rather than allow any one issue or any single approach to dominate the campaign discussion, Obama made governance itself -- and the need for a change in how we govern -- the overriding issue. Nothing shook him from that message and focus for very long. That has helped turn the party's image from starry eyed liberal idealism and a party beholden to various single-interest groups to one of grittier pragmatism and compromise in the name of problems-solving.

Regional breadth. Obama couldn't match Clinton's financial resources, so he spent far less on advertising in expensive, large markets in big states and focused instead on caucus states and smaller primary states -- many of them regarded as Republican states in general elections -- states that Clinton essentially ignored. Obama also did extremely well in many southern states. By using the general election campaign to build on those primary organizations, voter registration drives and initial excitement, Obama and the party put many red states into play. (Really, four years ago would would anyone have said a black Democratic presidential nominee would have a shot at capturing rock-ribbed GOP states like Indiana?) More importantly, win or lose in those places, Democrats have established themselves in many states where the party was little more than a joke for decades and has considerable opportunity to grow.

Ideological diversity. Obama's drive to broaden the geographical base of the party actually followed the successful drive two years ago by congressional Democrats to take control of the House and Senate by defeating Republicans in very unlikely places such as Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina. They did so -- and are going to expand their majorities today -- by running conservative and moderate candidates who fit in with their constituencies. So Obama's rhetoric about building bridges to various points of view and governing from the center is backed up by a party that is much broader ideologically than it was earlier in the decade. If Obama and congressional leaders can keep the disparate blocs of the party together as a governing majority, it is going to be an extremely difficult coalition for Republicans to break up in future elections.

What happened to the Republicans? After all, early in the year the GOP appeared headed in the right direction -- if not necessarily for victory. John McCain was the candidate with the greatest distance from President Bush and closest ideological ties to the political moderates and centrists that the party needs to attract. Not to mention that the GOP was running a veteran lawmaker -- and a war hero in a time of war and national security worries -- running against a far younger and less experienced candidate.

Put simply, McCain made a series of mistakes that not only probably cost the GOP any chance of winning in a difficult year, but that ultimately left it smaller, weaker and with a far larger rebuilding project ahead of it.

A weak agenda. Even before the financial crisis erupted in the fall, voters thought the country was headed in the wrong direction. McCain and the GOP needed to make a break from Bush and offer a clear new agenda. McCain was a strong and unwavering supporter of the war in Iraq and was essentially joined at the hip to Bush on that issue. But rather than try to stake out other ground that would draw a contrast, McCain actually changed his position on one of the highest profile issues where he disagreed with Bush and most other Republicans -- the tax cuts in Bush's first term. McCain doubtless had to change his position some to win the Republican nomination, but with Iraq sliding off the top of the political agenda and the economy becoming almost the sole concern of voters, McCain kept emphasizing low taxes as an issue. Not only did that make it easy for Democrats to treat McCain and Bush as conjoined twins, but it also reinforced the image of the GOP as so bereft of ideas that tax cuts were, in essence, its solution to virtually any problem.

Leadership and judgment. There is no other way to put it but bluntly: By picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain squandered his most valuable political asset. That McCain -- who made national security and America's fragile place in the world paramount issues for his campaign -- would pick a candidate so lacking in knowledge and experience on those issues to be a heartbeat away from a 72-year old president with a history of cancer was nothing short of disastrous. McCain probably cast more doubt on his judgment with that decision than Democrats ever could have done on their own.

Ideological narrowness. McCain clearly hoped that picking Palin would appeal to Democratic and independent women, but he badly misjudged her appeal, which was limited to the GOP base. She clearly excited the base and helped McCain a lot in that regard, but it limited the appeal of the ticket to moderates.

The overall impact of these decisions and of McCain's approach as a whole was a campaign that basically talked to conservative Republicans about the things they cared most about -- not to the broader electorate about issues the entire country was wringing its hands over. For a party that lost control of Congress by attempting to govern in pretty much the same way, this was not exactly the image needed this year -- and it will make changing that image in future years even more difficult to change.