I'll try to keep the sour grapes to a minimum, but the trendy thing to do appears to be to postmortem the election and what happened and what this holds for the future, so here goes.
By the time this gets published, we will know for sure. Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States. For that, I'm going to offer an opinion probably not seen by too many internet commentators who voted for McCain.
"Congratulations, and I wish President-elect Obama the best of luck and I hope that we look back on Obama's presidency as a time of great success and progress."
"Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa?" says everyone who knew me as a firebrand conservative for most of the last 8 years. Don't worry. I'm still the same man (maybe centering more on social issues), but for a good portion of the last 16 years, the loyal opposition has been taking almost excessive delight in a President's failures. It's one thing to capitalize on political advantage, but at times this has turned into near-morbid sport. He's the President of the United States and while I may profoundly disagree with him, and personally think he's a dick from our brief meeting a few years ago, he should get the full respect the office deserves. It would be a welcome change.
With these pleasantries aside, there's two things to dissect. 1) How did Obama win/McCain lose? and 2.) What does this hold for the new Democrat government and the Republicans, who only four years ago were an electoral machine and are now in the political wilderness.
It would have been a historical rarity for the GOP to win three consecutive Presidential Elections
Obama won in large part to his qualities that have been documented at length. His great bio, charisma, message of change and unity, and frankly, a year that seemed destined to go for the Democrats. The same party holding the White House for 3 consecutive elections rarely happens. The Republicans did it in 1980, '84, and '88, but before that, you have to go back to when the Democrats held on for 5 election cycles from 1932 to 1948. In the entire history of our country, one-party control of the White House for more than 8 years has only happened 5 times.
John McCain didn't know who he was, or at least didn't trust himself well enough to run his own campaign.
Obama also was helped by the fact that frankly, the Republican Party was out of ideas. John McCain famously rebuked Obama in the debates by saying, "If you wanted to run against George Bush, you should have run four years ago." I found that fitting and ironic, since McCain's campaign largely relied on the same issues (Terrorism, taxes, social issues, etc.) that President Bush ran on four years ago. Perhaps if McCain wanted to run this kind of campaign, he should have run four years ago. It was regrettably a very conventional campaign for a very unconventional candidate. When I say unconventional, I mean that McCain is largely viewed as a moderate Republican, yet the power in the Republican party is still controlled by the far right.
Enthusiasm for McCain in his party was low. I personally did not vote in the GOP primary, but I can't say I would have voted for any of them. I flirted with voting for Romney but I probably would have voted "None of the above" or "They all suck" in. Obama or Hillary seemed unstoppable voices for change, and McCain was the old stalwart who had been waiting in the wings for the past 8 years. In many ways, I think McCain's campaign is also similar to Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. McCain got the nod in the primaries I think largely because it was viewed as "his turn." Just like Bob Dole in 1996, he would serve as the party's sacrificial lamb in a race that probably could not be won.
By contrast, Obama is viewed by many as a centrist, yet his record shows the opposite. McCain was never really able to craft a "bumper sticker" message beyond "Country First" which sounded more fascist or propagandist than anything else or "Prosperity. Reform. Peace." which isn't so much a campaign slogan as a bare minimum for Presidents. We expect Prosperity, reform, and peace as a ground floor that Presidents need to do before we can even begin talking about who did a "good" job as President.
This inability to craft a coherent message was only magnified by his reputation as one who would buck the party on key issues. While this endeared himself to independents, it alienated the base who were angered with McCain's votes on immigration, taxes, and McCain-Feingold. McCain found himself hated by the base for his votes on more social issues and hated by the left through his association with President Bush and his votes on things like the Troop Surge and Iraq.
John McCain's inability to win over his own party boxed him in when picking a potential Vice-President
What this eventually did was box McCain in on his options when trying to pick a running mate. It's well-known that McCain would have preferred to pick his good friends Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, but both are pro-choice and that would have further driven away what little of the social conservative base he had left. With Obama being only the second major party executive branch candidate to NOT be a white male (Geraldine Ferraro '84), McCain needed something to make his race "historic," and with few minorities in positions of national prominence in the Republican Party, this meant picking a woman. To mollify the base, he had to pick a pro-life woman, and to keep up his attacks on Obama for never having had any executive experience, McCain needed a woman who had served in a prominent political role.
If you were to make a list of the number of 1.) Republican 2.) Pro-Life 3.) Women 4.) Who were either current or former Governors, Cabinet Secretaries, or Senators and 5.) not part of the current Bush Administration, the list comes out to not much more than 2 people: Gov. Sarah Palin, and former Commerce Secretary Barbara Franklin. Lots of people said McCain took a gamble with Sarah Palin, but politically, he didn't have a choice and unfortunately she was out of her league.
While she started out by winning over social conservatives that gave McCain a lead in most state polls around Labor Day, her inability to handle tough questions doomed McCain with moderates and undecideds who viewed her as terribly unqualified and dopey-folksy. This in turn reflected poorly on McCain's judgment in picking her. McCain, Palin, and a good deal of the Republican party only made things worse by decrying "gotcha" journalism. While I can see their point, the kid just called up from Double-A doesn't get to complain when the pitcher is throwing harder and faster than he's used to. If you want to play in the majors, you have to be able to hit big-league pitching, and Sarah Palin while a promising prospect was probably another two election cycles away from being ready for the Big Show.
By contrast, all Obama had to do was pick a boring old white guy to be Vice-President and there's PLENTY OF THEM in Washington.
The election was finally decided on an issue completely out of the hands of either candidate, but McCain swung for the fences and missed.
When the market crashed in early October, McCain appeared to be throwing one more hail mary pass by announcing he would suspend his campaign to return to Washington to work on a bailout package. At first, this appeared politically brilliant. If a deal could be worked out, and Obama sat on the sidelines, McCain could trumpet his leadership in a time of crisis. If Obama didn't join him in DC, he could say McCain was putting country first and Obama was putting campaign first.
It was here that McCain made a tragic underestimatation 1.) of his own weight with a Democrat-controlled Congress most of whom is rooting for Obama to win and was in no hurry to help McCain in any way, and 2.) with the bailout bill's immense unpopularity with the rest of the country.
Obama took a hands off approach rather than risk being burned. The best thing John McCain could have done would have been to vote AGAINST the bailout. Then McCain could have campaigned on a free-market, populist, "throw-the-rascals-out" campaign across areas of the country hit hard by bad economic times like Michigan and Ohio. By voting for the bailout, McCain opened the door for Obama to declare the financial crisis the work of Bush and McCain, even though Obama voted for the same bill that McCain did. McCain was handed a lifeline in the form of Joe the Plumber, but by then it was too little too late, and by the end of the campaign, had become a national punchline.
What's Next for the Democrats
So the Democrats now have control of both Houses of Congress and the Presidency for the first time since 1992-1994 and only the second time since 1968 (the other time was 1976-80). The media has largely commented on how Obama has taken the Democrat party from the ashes and created a new ruling coalition in the vein of FDR or John Kennedy. I'm not entirely sure this is the case. America remains a center-right country, despite its recent swing to the left. Polls asking Americans how they view their own political beliefs over the past eight years show a consistent 60% of the country either views itself as "Very conservative" or "Somewhat conservative," while the other 40% views itself as "Moderate" "Somewhat Liberal" or "Very Liberal."
The Democrat government would be wise to heed this, and the lessons of 2006. After the 2004 elections, the Republicans had retained the White House. President Bush had received (at the time) the most votes of any Presidential candidate in history. The Republicans held on to both houses of Congress and stretched their margins. They were a political dynamo, and then...like all power does, it corrupted them. Republicans swept into office in 1994 on a message of reform and change and passed a wish list of legislation they'd been waiting to pass for a long time.
But in the end, they bought into the power and culture of Washington, just as the Democrats had before, and I promise just as the Democrats will now. Maybe it will take two years. Maybe it will take 10, but the Dems will be out eventually.
While this may appear to provide incentive to pass as much of their wish list legislation as possible before the political winds turn against them, one need only heed President Bush 4 years ago saying, "I have the political capital and I intend to spend it." In the 2005-07 Congress, the Republicans tried to ram EVERYTHING through. Judicial Nominations, Social Security Reform, Supreme Court Appointments, Tax Cuts, Pork Barrel Legislation of every kind, thinking they had a mandate. In reality, on the national level, we are very much a 51/49 country. Maybe this year we are 51/49 Democrat, but Obama's election, which was anticipated to be a landslide, should not be interpreted as anything close to a mandate. He's already going to be starting out with half the country pissed at him because they voted for the other guy. Obama ran on a message of bipartisanship and these people either said, "No thanks" or "I have little reason to believe you." While supermajorities may create parliamentary desires on the left to pass as much legislation as they can with little or no opposition, this would be an unwise choice, and could lead to a role reversal in two years, where the dominant party traditionally loses seats, and it's where it all went wrong for the Democrats in 1994. The Democrats would only win one national election between 1992 and 2006 (Bill Clinton's re-election bid in 1996).
What's next for the Republicans
Or as I would put it "Dude, where's my party?" As I said earlier, the Republicans lost because they stopped being the party of new ideas. Who even cares if the ideas are wrong? Let elections sort that out. But keep coming up with new ideas and fresh faces. Just to give an example, let's examine the Keynote speeches at the parties' conventions the past three election cycles. This speech usually slots an up-and-coming member of the party.
Year............RNC Keynote.........DNC Keynote
2000 .........John McCain...... Harold Ford Jr.
2004 .........Zell Miller........... Barack Obama (Now President)
2008 .........Joe Lieberman ...Mark Warner (Now a Senator)
Who is the future of the Republican Party? Who are they going to put up to run against President Obama in 2012? Two of the last three conventions, the Republicans' keynote speaker; their up-and-coming shooting star was a Democrat! The way I see it, there are three roads the Republicans can take from here.
1.) Nominate an established party man and make the same "experience" argument again. This approach favors candidates like Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney is destined to fail. Who has more experience in being President than a sitting President? With that in mind, I am convinced that these men, though respected have missed their chance to be President. Both will have been political nobodies for at least four years (or in Rudy's case, 11) by the time the next election cycle rolls around.
2.) Refashion the party by playing to your strengths. This would likely revolve around policies designed to help "small-town" familes. The Republicans' largest base of power is in rural areas. This sort of approach could favor candidates like Mike Huckabee and even Sarah Palin, should she decide to mount a serious challenge in 2012. However, by then, I feel the newness will have worn off, and Palin will be back in Alaska, and Huckabee will be hosting his Just-Like-Letterman-Only-Not-Funny-And-Creepier talk show on Fox News. This approach is also destined to failure as not only are more and more Americans moving into urban areas, but more Northerners from traditional Democratic bases of power are moving into the South and West (traditional Republican bases of power).
3.) Get back to the party's roots. I mean....WAY BACK. Like....1860s refashioning, or at the very least, 1994. With Obama's projected tax hikes and new spending, the Republicans seem to be in perfect position to reclaim the mantle of the party of small government. Social issues should be presented only in a matter that is coherent with the philosophy of limited Federal government. 2nd Amendment, Free Speech, Less Federal Bureaucracy in Education. For this change in philosophy from the NeoCons, a new, fresh face will be needed. It need not be someone who is unknown on the national scene. I personally have been a fan of Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) for a number of years and have thought he would make a good Presidential candidate. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) could also hold potential. I'd also like to give a shout-out to my old boss, Rep. Don Manzullo (R-IL). Figure as long as I'm throwing out names, I'd add him in there. Govs. Charlie Crist (R-FL) or Bobby Jindal (R-LA) might also be interesting options. If the Republican party refashioned itself as a fiscal conservative, socially center-right party, they may have the backing to win and govern again.