The political autopsy of John McCain has already begun.
Four days remain, of course, and he could still pull this out. But even more than the daunting gap in swing state polls, it's the rabid infighting and utter gloom in Team McCain that's the dead giveaway that Nov. 4 will be a brief and bloody night for Republicans.
Two narratives have arisen as to why McCain will lose. His supporters claim that with a tanking economy and President Bush's record low popularity, McCain was sunk from the start. No other Republican could have made it a contest.
Less charitable folks say McCain has run a terrible campaign, plagued by bickering staff with competing agendas from the start. His message bounced all over the place (which sadly is inevitable when more moderate candidates compete in GOP primaries and then shift to the general election).
But it was the Wall Street meltdown proved fatal. McCain seemed determined to prove Barack Obama's charge that he was erratic (suspending the campaign, diddling around Washington, going to the debate anyway) and the impression has stuck.
There's truth to both storylines. But I think the ultimate reason is more organic.
McCain wasn't allowed to be McCain. He didn't run the kind of campaign he wanted, leaving him forever to wonder what if. What if I'd picked Joe Lieberman as VP? What if I'd run a clean campaign? What if I ran on the issues I valued most and palled around with the press?
In a way, McCain will probably regret this more than his actual defeat. Because there's nothing quite like compromising your core and going down anyway.
Let's make this clear. This wasn't a murder of McCain; it was a suicide. McCain is the captain of the ship and didn't have to hand the reins over to traditional GOP advisers like Rick Davis and Charlie Black nationally or Chuck Yob in Michigan. If he wanted to run like a true maverick, he should have kept his conscience, John Weaver, and hired Mike Murphy, who wasn't afraid to challenge him.
But McCain ran like a candidate afraid to lose from the get-go. It was only when he got back to basics in New Hampshire, tirelessly holding town halls in hamlets for a dozen people at a time last summer, that his campaign was reborn.
What ultimately greased his way through the inhospitable GOP primary season was that the far right was uncharacteristically fickle about its anointed candidate. Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and even social liberal Rudy Giuliani duked it out while McCain stitched together a series of unlikely wins.
Once he grabbed the nomination, he floundered for four months, failing to campaign hard even as Obama and Hillary Clinton threatened to obliterate each other and take the party with them.
McCain clearly thought he'd face Clinton, whom he respected, and always viewed Obama as a cocky usurper. But his campaign allowed him to telegraph his disdain, which he most notably did with his sighs and eye rolls at the debates. Better advisers would have drilled Mac to be more happy warrior, less grumpy old man.
His contempt for Obama also allowed him to OK vile robocalls linking him to terrorism, run sinister ads questioning his patriotism and fall just short of calling him a commie at rallies. McCain can justify this to himself because Obama ducked town hall debates and broke his public financing pledge.
But the truth is that McCain is running the sort of bare-knuckle, whip-up-the-basest-elements-in-the-base campaign that Bush thrashed him with in 2000. The lesson McCain seemed to learn from that was that nice guys finish last. Better to sell out than sell yourself short.
Which brings us to his pick of Sarah Palin. Reports in the New Yorker and other publications clearly paint McCain as being irascible and demoralized when his advisers foisted Palin upon him. The senator wanted a truly bipartisan, national security ticket with Lieberman.
McCain was told in no uncertain terms that he would shatter the party, that pandemonium would reign at the convention with a far right exodus. Well, so what? The Dixiecrats walked out of the Dems' bash in 1948 and most formally seceded by the '60s. That helped the Democratic Party redefine itself as one dedicated to equality and human rights.
McCain would have captured the holy grail of independents and stolen away moderate and conservative Democrats.
Look at the GOP right now. The civil war is happening anyway. McCain could have been the leader of the new pragmatic, centrist party. He could have taken control of the party platform on climate change, drilling, gay rights and abortion for starters. Instead, it's even more radical than it was under Bush's tutelage.
Now McCain is being pilloried by the right-wing media for killing the party (ha!) while Palin is canonized and groomed for the glorious resurrection in '12. Good luck with that.
If McCain had followed his instincts, he still might have fallen short. But at least his political epitaph would have cathartically read, "I did it my way."