Since any after the fact election analysis is inevitably coloured by what actually happened, it might be worth setting down a few thoughts before the outcome -- even if predictable -- is known. And so part of the explanation for 2008 should be that John McCain's problems began with the 2004 presidential election. That election looks like it produced one of the quickest cases of buyer's remorse in political history. Within a couple of months, Bush's approval ratings were headed downwards and have never recovered.
Several factors were at work. First, some very strange remarks from Bush in the days after the election. He (or Cheney) referred to now having a "mandate" and "political capital", which was taken as a reference to him having won the popular vote, unlike in 2000. The obvious question was, since he now had a mandate, what he thought was the basis for his radical policies during 2000-04: a huge deficit-financed tax cut, a war of choice with Iraq, and a long snooze through August 2001. Bush seemed to have an answer for that question; the 2004 election was "an accountability moment".
This phrase, which sounds it like came from Dick Cheney, is the kernel of what went wrong in his 2nd term. What did it mean? He had done some stuff in his 1st term. The results, even in the euphoria of his 2004 win, were unclear. But he had answered to the electorate. So everything that he had done was endorsed and he was a free agent for the rest of his term. In particular, the conduct of the war in Iraq was endorsed.
Now, all the warning signs were there in 2004. We all knew about Abu Ghraib. Things were bad enough that John McCain seriously thought about running as John Kerry's Vice Presidential nominee to force a change in Iraq policy. But things were not bad enough that criticism of the war couldn't be shouted down by Bush loyalists, which was a key dynamic of the 2004 campaign. In this regard, John Kerry had a tough job. He was running against a candidate offering free tax cuts and a free war. Without a classic Rove divide and distract focus on moral issues (values voters) and the Swift Boat liars, he might have won.
So anyway, casting our minds back to November 2004, and hubris very quickly set in. There was talk of Bush and Rove implanting their DNA throughout the government. Doctors Bush, Frist, and DeLay were deciding what was best for Terri Schiavo -- over and above the preferences of her husband. Bush soon decided that not withstanding the burden of two wars, neither going well, 2005 was an excellent time to convince Americans that they could benefit from placing more of their retirement investments with Wall Street.
And each time he opened his mouth about it, some new nugget of comedy would result and the prospects for social security "reform" would plummet. Meanwhile, John McCain, having passed up his chance to shock the political world and force a change in Iraq policy, yelled about Iraq to hundreds of C-Span viewers from the Senate floor but was otherwise a happy foot soldier in the Bush revolution.
So now we're in 2008. There is a critical block of voters that went for Bush in 2004 and is saying, like Bush once said "fool me once .... won't get fooled again". The change in Iraq policy that John McCain wanted did come, but forced in 2006 by dire circumstances and a Democratic takeover of Congress, not by John McCain. A few voters might even remember Bush's promises of a Social Security free lunch via Wall Street and now have a few questions about how that was supposed to work. It was going to take a good Republican candidate to overcome that legacy, or a bad Democratic one to waste it. Neither happened. To be continued ...