By A.B. Stoddard - 10/24/08 12:35 PM EDT
Recently, however, it seems as though Barack Obama may have borrowed some of McCain's luck, just when he needed it the most. We know it wasn't luck that led an inexperienced rookie to come from nowhere and vanquish the Clinton political machine, or luck that helped him raise more money than anyone in the history of politics. But it took more than a little luck to give an outdoor acceptance speech at his nominating convention before 80,000 people without rain. And that the speech fell on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, scheduled long before Obama was in the running for the nomination — pretty lucky.
But that was back in August, which turned out to be a political lifetime ago. Back then Obama's luck was only just beginning. In early September, McCain's choice of Sarah Palin set off a surge of excitement, especially among women. As Palin-mania gripped the nation, terrified Democrats panicked and reacted by with what The Washington Post described as a donation "frenzy," bringing in $10 million between Sept. 3 and 4 alone.
When the Palin bubble burst, women the McCain campaign had hoped Palin would attract to the ticket began deserting the GOP nominee, including most of the last hold-outs: Hillary supporters who wouldn't even support Obama after Hillary told them to at his convention.
It was around the same time that Lehman Brothers collapsed, and then the rest of Wall Street. McCain announced he would suspend his campaign, and perhaps not attend the first presidential debate, to help solve the crisis. Help he did not, and the stunt backfired badly for him. He went to Mississippi for the debate, where he was snarling angry and had nothing encouraging to tell voters about how to address the economic crisis. Obama had nothing encouraging to tell them, either, but he stayed cool as McCain seethed and refused to even look at his opponent.
The next week, as not one Republican vouched for McCain's roll in the negotiations, both McCain and Obama voted for the $700 billion bailout package the voters hated. It was a moment for McCain to lead, to separate from President Bush, to rail against the pork added to the bill for rum distributors and racetracks, a moment to turn everything around. Instead it was one of the worst moment's of McCain's career, and voters learned a lot from it.
In the weeks to come, and the debate to come, McCain was cranky while Obama was once again calm. McCain offered many messages, most of them negative, while Obama — taking a page from Hillary — focused intently on the subject of the economy and jobs. What is it he proposed or said? Likely they don't remember. No matter; he never wavered from talking about them, and voters learned a lot from that.
McCain was capable of standing between the voters and a bill full of pork — no one is more pure on that issue. Instead he was mute. And McCain was capable of talking, reassuringly, to voters in the debates about the issues they care most about. He did it at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church forum in August and at a national service forum on Sept. 11. Instead, during his three opportunities before tens of millions of people, he was volatile, unnerving and completely self-absorbed.
What if McCain hadn't run a bad campaign? What if Palin wasn't a liability? What if McCain had chosen leadership over stunts when Wall Street fell? What if he had opposed the bailout package? What if the economic crisis had been a foreign policy crisis instead?
Obama now commands the momentum, the map and the money with just days left in the campaign for president. But where would he be without McCain and his mistakes?