David Broder aptly summarizes two faults that have plagued John McCain. The first is organizational:
We suspected, and soon confirmed, that he had limited interest in, and capacity for, organization and management of large enterprises. His first effort at building a structure for the 2008 presidential race collapsed in near-bankruptcy, costing him the service of many longtime aides. From beginning to end, the campaign that followed has been plagued by internal feuds and by McCain’s inability to resolve them.
Even his biggest defenders would not mistake the McCain camp for the finely-honed Romney operation. At times in the last few weeks, his team has come to resemble Hillary’s — feuding, defensive, disorganized. So is there a method in the chaos? Or could they be doing better if all the ducks were in a row, the campaign travel schedule didn’t appear to have been set by a blindfolded dart thrower, and the aides had piped down? We don’t know, because there is no control group in which a perfectly calibrated McCain campaign operates in a parallel campaign.
Broder then gets to the nub of the matter. Like many conservatives, he finds there’s a deficit in vision:
The shortcoming was intellectual as well as bureaucratic. Like Jimmy Carter, the only Naval Academy graduate to reach the Oval Office, McCain had an engineer’s approach to policymaking. He had no large principles that he could apply to specific problems; each fresh question set off a search for a “practical” solution. He instinctively looked back to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive era, with its high-mindedness and disdain for the politics of doling out favors to interest groups. But those instincts coexisted uneasily with his adherence to traditional, Reagan-era conservatism — a muscular foreign policy, a penchant for tax-cutting and a fondness for business.
McCain was handed a terrible political environment by the outgoing Bush administration — a legacy of war, debt and scandal that would have defeated any of the other aspirants for the nomination. But because McCain could not create a coherent philosophy or vision of his own, he allowed Obama and the Democrats to convince voters of a falsehood: that electing McCain would in effect reward Bush with a third term.
It is only in the closing couple of weeks of the campaign that McCain has found his footing. And it hasn’t come from his own camp, but from an ordinary citizen (“It’s the socialism, stupid”) and his opponents ( Joe Biden’s prediction of crisis and Obama’s confession of redistributive designs). But so it was in the primary as well: he hit his stride at the last possible moment, primarily as a counterpuncher to Romney.
Again, it is unknowable if a well-defined economic philosophy would have grounded his campaign. But it was the absence of a defined vision that left him grasping for ideas and gestures when the financial crisis hit. And he’s now trying to claw back as time ticks away.
Despite these failures, McCain still remains viable. That may be a tribute to the extremism of his opponents’ views, the close political division in the country, the esteem with which many voters regard McCain, or some combination of all of these. But he could have saved himself a world of hurt had he addressed these two shortcomings. As Broder sums up:
Should McCain still win the election, it will demonstrate even more vividly than the earlier episodes in his life the survival instincts and capacity for overcoming the odds of this remarkably engaging man. If he becomes president, the country would have to hope this campaign has honed his leadership skills.
Hard to argue with that.