Did John McCain throw the election?

Is it just me, or was there a certain elegaic tone to the Republican presidential campaign, a McCain’s Last Hurrah narrative that precluded victory around the time the stock market took a dive?  It was then that McCain signed a joint statement with his Democratic rival, urging lawmakers “to rise above politics for the good of the country” and give untold trillions to the Money Power because “we cannot risk economic catastrophe.  Now is our chance to come together to prove that Washington is once again capable of leading this country.”

If McCain had opposed the bailout, there might have been a different outcome to the election.  The populist fervor that energized the Obama campaign might have been transferred to the GOP, and the anti-bailout sentiment that had no voice or champion could have catapulted McCain into the White House.  At that point, however, the noble martyrdom of the steadfast patriot who rises above petty partisan politics takes over, and as always with McCain, persona trumps politics—or, rather, covers up the real politics at work here.  With our lame-duck President just as eager as the Democrats to start shoveling cash into the corporate maw, McCain refused to take the one step that would have separated him from President Bush—and from Obama—in a dramatic way.

There were earlier signs, however, that McCain was resigned to defeat.  The real key to understanding the point at which this defeatism set in was the choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.  She is undoubtedly charming and telegenic, but these attributes—taken by themselves—are good for a career in show business, or modeling, but aren’t quite enough to qualify one for the Oval Office.  The evidence that Palin was vetted is scarce, and so are credible reasons for the choice: It must have been clear to McCain that she was not at all prepared to take the helm should he be incapacitated—a not unlikely scenario, given his age.  The Palin choice was a clear signal from the McCain camp that they didn’t take their own campaign seriously—and didn’t expect anybody else to, either.

The Palin choice was all the more odd in the context of the McCain campaign’s attempt to paint their Democratic opponent as an airheaded celebrity.  It’s almost as if the McCainiacs were mocking themselves.

McCain held his fire on many important issues, aside from the bailout.  Obama’s close, years-long relationship with the Reverend Wright, his “mentor,” was a potentially lethal weapon that was never fired—for reasons that are hard to fathom.  In the name of “honor” and running a “clean” campaign, McCain made it clear that the Wright issue was off limits.  Yet, somehow, the Bill Ayers connection—far more tenuous and arguably marginal—was considered fair game.  There is no logic to this, except for the logic of a campaign that had already decided to lose.

One other factor that should not be downplayed or ignored is the revenge factor.  McCain has always been an outsider in the Republican Party: For a self-described “maverick,” that goes with the territory.  He has been at odds with conservatives for years, and his run-in with Rush Limbaugh during the campaign, not to mention his clash with the Religious Right during the 2000 primary, and with James Dobson during the recent primary, was enough to embitter anyone—and there is every indication that McCain took it very personally.  McCain’s loyalty to the GOP is not even skin-deep: Recall his 2004 trial balloon that he might consider running on the Democratic ticket with John Kerry at the top.  Add to this McCain’s infamous temper, and the idea that he threw the election to get back at his enemies in the party is not all that far-fetched.

A campaign characterized by serial missteps, public backbiting, an inadequate running mate, a lack of focus, and a complete unwillingness to confront the Democrats on issues that matter to the American people—all of these factors, considered separately, could well have been the products of circumstance.  Taken together, however, they plausibly add up to something worse than mere incompetence.