A year ago at this time I was a solid John McCain supporter. You can look it up. I wrote about how much I admired him and hoped he'd do well in the primaries. He was clearly my preferred choice.
Over the Christmas holidays I happened to have a series of conversations with GOP leaders who knew McCain personally, and in some cases had worked with him.
Each one of them expressed serious reservations, pointing to his temper (which I knew about) and what they described as his sometimes erratic behavior and hasty decision-making.
Like most people, I didn't want to hear bad things about my hero. And since the people I was talking to all were supporting other candidates in the upcoming primaries, I wrote it off as just politics.
I was impressed by his early victories in the primaries, his determination, and his unwillingness to run any negative campaigns.
Meanwhile, Obama, whom I was aware of and had respected for his thoughtful approach to problems, continued to surprise me. I really didn't like Clinton, a lot, but I thought Obama didn't have a snowball's chance in Hades of defeating the Democratic Party machine that was so firmly in the hands of Clinton. Yet he managed to out-organize the party machine and offered a message that resonated with voters who were desperate for a new approach to government.
He also persevered through the last-ditch savage and highly negative attacks of Clinton, and it was at that point that I began to notice something refreshing about the American political landscape this year -- voters seemed to be fed up with negative campaigns and whoever launched one saw it backfiring on them.
Meanwhile, McCain had wrapped up the nomination but his campaign seemed to be stalling. It was at that point, I think, that he made the first of a series of crucial mistakes.
He reorganized his staff, replacing its leadership with what has become known as the Karl Rove Kids, people who had worked under and learned politics from Rove, the master of Machiavellian politics and the smear campaign. But whereas Rove had a surgical precision to his ability to manipulate slime, his followers weren't quite as polished, apparently using chainsaws instead of scalpels. My belief that this would be the cleanest campaign in U.S. history, because both Obama and (still believe) McCain were honorable men, began to unravel.
One of the key things about a president is who they surround themselves with. No president can administer this country without relying on his subordinates to work effectively for him, and typically, a lot of campaign staff winds up in key administrative positions in the government. Who you choose to be in your inner circle is vital (I've often though it was more important to know who the chief of staff was going to be than who was going to be selected as the vice president).
McCain was surrounding himself with people who looked a lot like Cheney and Rove, where the acquisition and maintenance of power is for more important than actually using it to achieve progress, whereas Obama was surrounding himself with people who looked more like the high quality advisors Kennedy and FDR had enjoyed.
Then, rather than playing to the moderates who had helped him win the nomination and who would be vital in the fall election, McCain tried to solidify his support among the very right wing he had run against in the primaries. More and more he was embracing the failed policies of President Bush, looking less and less like the maverick, the image that had been his strength. And he kept reinventing his campaign, never really focusing on key issues long enough to make a difference. Obama's vulnerable on several issues, but McCain choose to attack his character instead of demonstrating how his position on those issues was superior to his opponent.
McCain's supposed foreign policy advantage also began to fade when Obama took his "world tour" and won high praise from virtually every world leader he met (and after selecting Palin he had to virtually put that issue in the closet, anyway). And McCain seemed to be constantly behind changing conditions. He'd endorse a Bush policy only to have Bush reverse that policy often within the week (e.g., negotiating with Iran). He kept saying we needed to support the Iraqi government, only to see it demand a timetable for withdrawal, which he still opposes, but which has been a keystone of Obama's Iraqi policy.
He shocked everyone with his selection of Palin, which energized his campaign only long enough for people to start seeing who she was. He could have done much better. Idaho's Gov. Butch Otter, as just one example, could have helped him every bit as much with the conservatives in his party and has had much, much more foreign policy experience (he's on yet another trade mission to Asia this month). Palin turned out to be merely a bulldog with lipstick, and recent revelations of her husband's involvement in a sucessionist movement, and the fact she's appeared before that group and cut a video for them hasn't helped. I thought that little incident between 1861 and 1865 determined you couldn't do that.
But Palin's selection was an example of that hasty decisionmaking those GOP leaders I'd talked to a year ago were concerned about.
And then the economy melted down. Obama had warned about the conditions that led to this crisis more than a year ago and had consistently been calling for greater oversight. But McCain's laissez faire approach wasn't looking like such a good idea, and in the week following the outbreak of the crisis he bounced around like a pinball and was embarrassed by the members of his own party in Congress. He still doesn't seem to have a handle on the problem and as voters began to recognize that he (or his handlers) decided to switch his campaign focus to the most negative smear attacks he could. His own top aides went on the record as saying they wanted to change the focus away from the economy!
The problem was, that was what the people are most concerned about. The American people aren't so stupid as to fall for such parlor magic tricks, trying to get them to focus on something else in the hopes the rabbit is going too leave the hat on its own.
The smear attacks got so out of hand, and were costing him so much in the polls, that he had to back down and start telling his supporters to cool it. But even as he was forced to praise Obama's character, the negative campaign ads attacking that character continued. It's been hard the last couple of weeks to figure out who is actually running McCain's campaign, it's become so schizophrenic.
Even top Republican strategists, such as Reagan's principal political advisor, Ed Rollins, have been sharply critical of how McCain has been handling his campaign. The "handlers" have had more influence than the candidate in determining the direction of his campaign, and that had started to make me really nervous about what a McCain administration would look like. Who really would be in charge?
With three weeks to go in this election, McCain has managed to turn off the crucial independent voters and he's looking increasingly desperate. Unless the terrorists manage to help him out and attack the United States in the next few weeks (God forbid), his chances of winning this election have fallen below slim and are rapidly approaching none. He needs to quit generating fear about what Obama will do, and start telling people -- precisely -- what he will do.
Perhaps most disappointing to me personally, he's lost my support. I believe that the ends do not justify the means. Rather, the means usually are an example of what the ends will look like, and I no longer believe that he would make a good president.