McCain's campaign has become so loathsome and gimmicky, such an extreme version of Republican electioneering, that the Republicans might not recover for years. He is forfeiting all respect of the political class, his campaign manager, once a bright star, is earning a reputation as a bullying asshole, and, worst of all, he's losing. Reporters remember stuff like that, and begin fashioning narratives around it. Such narratives die hard.
They did most things right. They focused on women, pulled McCain away from the reporters so his mouth couldn't doom them, did the usual character attacks, made an inspired roll of the dice in Palin, just when things were getting away from them, and for awhile that roll looked like a winner. But Palin herself turned out to be raw talent, and clearly not ready for prime time (it's also pretty clear that, given her beliefs and history, she never will be ready, regardless of her talent), and then came the economic crisis. And they've fallen apart. Lashing out at the press, "suspending the campaign for the good of the country," making a series of nonsensical statements, basically looking desperate and even amateurish. It's hard to run a campaign sailing into a headwind like this one is, but even as you struggle, you don't have to look bad. They're looking bad.
Palin is the fulcrum. She highlights their weakness (women voters), and their weakness (they are beholden to a base that has become demanding and has high expectations of influence), and their weakness (they have become so arrogant that they didn't feel a need to vet her until it was too late), and their weakness (little bench strength), and their weakness (their base passionately holds some crazy beliefs that a majority of Americans reject). Some of those weaknesses are structural (particularly with women voters), given traditional conservative beliefs, and just the reality of the way a political party should work. They can't, for example, just tell their base to fuck off the way the Dems do every four years -- their base is larger and more unified than the Dem base, and so more powerful. Some of their weaknesses are borne from strengths, strengths which have served them well in the past. That base, for example, pretty much guarantees they will never be blown out in an election, barring a massive disaster, and they "won" in 2000, and won in 2004 running a campaign based largely on hardcore base appeal. And their arrogance came because they have been very successful at shaping the discourse the way they wanted. So because of these things, and because McCain is a "maverick" (read intemperate fool), Palin ended up getting picked. She has not worked out the way they hoped she would, and the weaknesses -- and the strengths -- remain.
I'm curious to see how they retool in the future. Assuming McCain doesn't finish the job of destroying the Republican brand name, they have some things going for them. They still have their radio talkers, and Fox News, and their newspapers. Many more voters identify as "conservative" than as "liberal." Somewhere around 25% of the population has been trained to hate liberals and Democrats. They have the corporations, and huge sources of income, which allow them to fund hack writers to write hack books attacking liberals and liberalism; they can then continue using more of their money to buy the books, driving them up on the bestseller lists, creating "buzz" around fantastic nonsense. All this been working well for them since the time of Reagan. Has anything changed in the past year? Will anything change in the next four?