Commentary: What If John McCain Loses?

Donaldson explores McCain's evolution during the campaign and what happens next.

Oct. 23, 2008 — -- The following is a commentary by ABC News' Sam Donaldson. Click here to view a video version of his latest essay.

I was struck by a newspaper banner headline this morning – "McCain lambastes the Bush years" – subhead: "We just let things get completely out of hand." The story says that in an interview with the newspaper's reporter, Sen. John McCain "lashed out at a litany of Bush policies and issues that he said he would have handled differently."

Well, you say, no wonder, the Arizona Republican is struggling to separate himself from President Bush in an effort to appeal to Independents. Yes, that certainly does appear to be what he ought to do, but the problem here is, the newspaper I'm quoting from is the Washington Times, a conservative paper which is read not by Independents, but by the Republican base, which isn't all that unhappy with Bush.

So, this is probably a case of right message, wrong forum -- a mistake.

When candidates that I've watched over a good many years in both parties get behind, they start making mistakes that they ordinarily wouldn't and just keep doing it. They become different people in an effort to turn things around and, of course, all of that simply adds to their problem, without solving anything.

In normal times, John McCain has been an attractive guy to lots of people, particularly Independents. Sure, he's always had his quirks, temper, you name it, but then his maverick streak, his straight talk, his principled stands on such topics as immigration and campaign finance reform that bucked the conservative base have, for a large portion of the public, outweighed all that.

In these closing weeks of this hard-fought election, the sure-footed, confidence-inspiring McCain of the primary debates didn't show up for his three debates with Sen. Barack Obama. The McCain who has no record of engaging in fierce negative advertising in his Senate races or 2000 presidential primary effort has gone missing.

The draining, desperate intensity of a losing campaign changes people, but often only temporarily.

My bet is that if John McCain loses this election, he will go to ground and lick his wounds for a time, and then the old, likeable, much-admired John McCain will be back. Let's hope so – for his sake and for the sake of the country which he has served so well.

Sam Donaldson, a 41-year ABC News veteran, served two appointments as chief White House correspondent for ABC News, from 1977-1989 and from January 1998 to August 1999, covering Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton. Donaldson also co-anchored, with Diane Sawyer, "PrimeTime Live," from August 1989 until it merged with "20/20" in 1999. He co-anchored the ABC News Sunday morning broadcast, "This Week With Sam Donaldson & Cokie Roberts," from December 1996 to September 2002. Currently, Donaldson appears on ABC News Now, the ABC News digital network, in a daily show called "Politics Live."