How badly did McCain really do?
A considerable amount of the analysis of the election that I have seen focuses on McCain's supposed weaknesses as a candidate, his alienation of the Republican base, etc. -- the implication being that a radically-different Republican candidate could have expected to beat Obama.
This is ignoring the fundamental reality of the situation. At the beginning of this year, hardly anyone entertained the idea that the Republicans had a realistic chance of holding the Presidency. In the wake of Bush's disastrous Presidency and an endless string of Republican scandals, the popularity of the Republican "brand" was at its lowest ebb in decades, if not generations. Democrats were winning in Congressional districts which normally go Republican by double-digit margins. Media bias in Obama's favor was blatant. Any Republican candidate at all would have been at a massive disadvantage under these conditions. What's actually surprising, given the challenges he faced, was how well McCain did -- he lost by a popular-vote margin of only 6.5%. Had the financial crisis not struck just before the election as it did, he might even have won. Given the odds against him it was a respectable performance.
Realistically, only a Republican of McCain's stripe had any chance at all in a year like this. With his bipartisan record and relatively centrist positions, he did manage to appeal to many voters in the broad political center, where elections are decided. His stand on abortion had drifted from tolerance to hostility, but there is every reason to think that this was to placate the Christian Right base of the party, and very little grounds for thinking that as President he would have pushed the issue. His acknowledgement of evolution and anthropogenic global warming, and his support for stem-cell research, heralded an end to the embarrassing Republican "war on science". His biography and his image as a man of honor made him appealing even to many who did not agree with him on the issues. Many people who, a year ago, could not have imagined voting for a Republican, did end up doing so.
As it happened, in such an unfavorable year for Republicans, even all this was not quite enough. But a hard-core "base" candidate like Huckabee or Jindal would probably have lost far more massively, handing Obama a real landslide win -- a 1972 or 1984 in reverse.
This is the trap into which the Republicans now risk falling -- to delude themselves that McCain lost because he was too moderate and that they need to re-embrace the Christian Right. In fact, the results of this year's referenda on abortion (the most prominent of the social issues) show that American voters are turning away from restrictions even in conservative states. The success of anti-gay-marriage propositions may suggest that gay-bashing is still a winning issue, but in fact the margins of victory for such initiatives are decreasing with each electoral cycle, and the tipping point will likely be reached before 2012. Even now, it's hard to imagine that many voters, even anti-gay ones, find this issue important enough to outweigh concerns about the economy and national security.
Another problem is the propensity of generals to want to fight the previous war rather than the next one. Much of the "buzz" about possible Republican Presidential candidates for 2012 now focuses on Palin and Jindal, likely based largely on the fact that both are young and charismatic and neither are white males, making it possible to imagine them as Republican counterparts to Obama. But 2012 is likely to be a very different electoral year from 2008 (consider how different 2008 was from 2004). Obama is likely to spend the next four years demonstrating -- perhaps at great cost to the country -- that experience and wisdom and, yes, the age which tends to bestow those things, are indeed very important in a President. By the same token, those years will likely have soured Americans on the idea of voting for rhetoric and charisma over substance. 2012 might actually be the ideal year for a McCain-like candidate. In fact, assuming his health is good, I don't think the possibility of McCain trying again can be entirely ruled out -- since he never made a one-term pledge this year, those who voted for him were presumably comfortable with the idea of him serving in 2012-2016.
In closing, here are a couple of points of free political advice for the Republicans (not that they'd take them from me):
(1) Surveys have consistently shown that the American public is strongly, and increasingly, hostile to illegal immigration. We want strict enforcement of immigration laws, no amnesty for the illegals who are here now, and tough employer sanctions and other such measures (not mass deportations) to drive the interlopers back to their home countries. Right now, neither party will touch this issue. But it's out there, ready and waiting to give a major boost to whichever party first takes it up. Logically that party should be the Democrats, traditionally the party of the American working class. But if the Republicans want to win over all those swing-state blue-collar workers once and for all, here's their chance.
(2) Americans are very concerned about any threat to their right to own firearms. The upsurge in gun purchases since the election illustrates this point clearly, and it's a concern which Obama, just as clearly, does not "get". If his administration makes any effort to impose restrictions, or even makes any noises about doing so, or nominates Supreme Court justices who are weak on the Second Amendment -- then he will have handed his Republican challenger in 2012, whoever it is, a gift-wrapped game-changer of an issue.