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Monday morning quarterbacking on game day

Peter Wehner argues that the market collapse in September probably doomed John McCain. Accordingly, Peter maintains that the mounting second-guessing of McCain’s campaign is misguided. McCain made mistakes, as all candidates do, and possibly more than the average number. But Peter’s contention is that, when we look back, we may well have to conclude that even a perfect campaign would not have sufficed in this environment.

He writes:

As pre-criminations are beginning to increase by the day and as commentators (including conservative commentators) begin to ascribe blame for where McCain and the GOP find themselves, it’s worth considering that sometimes events happen that are unfavorable, unfortunate, and that have bad consequences. To then use ideological, political, and personal predispositions to explain away why things are going poorly — McCain is too cranky and negative, Sarah Palin is a fool, their campaign is a joke, conservatism and capitalism are dying, the nation has become enchanted with liberalism, and so forth — is unfair and unwise. And people, including those advocating more grace and high-mindedness in our politics, who begin to unsheath their knives and stick them into the most convenient target look rather petty.

This is right, I think. The outcome of all but the closest elections is determined not by the candidates’ talking points, or even their ideology, but rather by powerful currents over which they have no control (e.g., the state of the economy). This is why models exist that can, with reasonable precision, explain the outcome of past elections based on a relatively small number of variables. They accomplish this without regard to the characteristics of the candidate except whether he’s the incumbent or a member of the incumbent’s party.

This is not to say (and Peter does not suggest) that all approaches to winning an election are equally effective or that there are no lessons to be learned from an unsuccessful campaign. But when a pundit or operative argues that an unsuccessful candidate would have polled appreciably better by pushing the pundit or operative’s pet theme, the appropriate response is lots of skepticism and a demand for evidence. And this is especially true, as Peter suggests, when the pundit or operative has an ideological ax to grind.

Peter’s conclusion is also sound:

[I]f the current polls hold and Republicans suffer badly on November 4, an intellectually and politically serious re-evaluation should occur. I hope it does; and I hope it’s done in a manner that is calm and reasonable — rather than emotional and bitter. Based on how things look at this point, that hope may be a fanciful one.

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