McCain's Last Gamble
At the very beginning of the primary season, there were two hot-button, hyper controversial issues—Iraq and immigration. John McCain went all in on both of these issues—he very vocally supported the surge in Iraq, and never wavered in his support for an immigration plan that included amnesty for illegal aliens. Both of these stands were potentially fatal—had the situation in Iraq deteriorated, or immigration remained an important issue, McCain’s campaign would have been finished.
Fortunately for McCain, though, his gamble paid off. Iraq became a winning issue for him, and oddly, people just kind of forgot about immigration (though it’s hard not to wonder whether there are still all that many “jobs Americans won’t do” in our rocky economy.)
As the primaries approached, everyone knew that either Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney would win Iowa. South Carolina wasn’t supposed to go for McCain (though it did), since McCain’s 2000 run had ended there, and Michigan was almost certainly going Romney. Romney’s deep pockets meant that he would be competitive everywhere, and Rudy Giuliani’s lead in Florida meant that McCain couldn’t plan on a win there. There was only one state that could jumpstart McCain’s campaign—New Hampshire.
McCain risked everything for the sake of a New Hampshire win. He spent little time in Iowa (which was probably a good idea, given his opposition to ethanol subsidies), and instead spent days meeting as many New Hampshire voters as possible.
Had McCain lost New Hampshire, his campaign would have been finished. And he could easily have lost—he beat Romney by only six points, not a terribly comfortable margin given the high stakes. But he prevailed, meaning that he lived to fight another day.
McCain took another big chance with his selection of Sarah Palin for his running mate. Had the choice backfired, his campaign would have taken a massive hit—Obama got a sizeable bounce from his convention, and McCain needed one himself to keep the race competitive.
Palin provided one. Whatever may be said about Palin, it is undeniable that she has energized the conservative base, and has ensured, at least, that the McCain campaign is never boring. And it seems probable that she will attract at least some former Hillary Clinton voters, with could make the difference in a close race.
When the financial crisis hit, McCain went all in once again—he suspended his campaign, flew to Washington, and threw himself unreservedly behind a bill most Americans opposed, or at the very least felt ambivalent about. His poll numbers dropped. After the bill passed, the stock market worsened. McCain’s stock dropped still more.
For better or worse, McCain’s fate is bound up in that of the bailout bill. If it fails, Americans will remember his enthusiastic support of the plan. Its failure will become his failure, and he will lose. If it passes, McCain will live to fight another day, as he has so many times.
But there aren’t many days left, and McCain needs to ensure if the bailout plan does succeed, it will reflect favorably on him as much as possible. It appears that it is working, at least a little bit—the market rose over 900 points today, which is a good sign. McCain needs to try to take credit for that shift.
Wednesday night, the two candidates debate for the last time. McCain must sell the bailout plan as an accomplishment, and must claim credit for the bill’s success—and accept blame for its failure. McCain must go all in on this issue—if the bailout works, he wins, or at least stays in the game. If it fails, he loses. McCain’s campaign has been a series of desperate gambles, all of which have paid off. McCain needs to win just one more.