If you assume that all you really need do is show up and wait for the other side to fail, you will lose and probably quite embarrassingly at that. McCain never made the case for himself, because he assumed that he would be the default winner once the public decided Obama was unprepared.
What is striking about McCain’s failure is how irrational it was to approach an election this way amid conditions that everyone acknowledged to be very good for Democrats. It might make sense to coast along on biography and belittling your opponent’s readiness and depth in a year when you have the wind at your back, a coherent message and a party label that is not radioactive, but McCain had none of these advantages.
This is the result, no doubt, of an incredible ego (McCain's). But it's inevitable. McCain has never had to persuade voters, as he's coasted to however many victories he's had because of his bio. The one time he was in a tough race before this one--against Bush, in 2000--he lost because he wasn't able to persuade GOP voters to abandon Bush for a centrist Maverick. His bio wasn't enough then, and it isn't enough now.
Now, John McCain has a great bio and a great story. No doubt about it. But I think that, in addition to relying on bio and Bushian policies, one of his biggest problems is that his story isn't the kind of story that screams "president". Now, when you run for Congress--an institution generally conceived of as being slimy and corrupt--a story like John McCain's is a huge asset. Not taking early release from the Hanoi Hilton does indeed show honor and courage (though it's not much in evidence these days) and that's a good thing to have when you want to run to be the Gentleman from Arizona's First District.
But the thing about the story is that it isn't a story about McCain's leadership. Now, had McCain's story involved leading a company of troops in Vietnam to destroy some Vietnamese radar or something like that, it would display those same positive qualities but it would also demonstrate a few other things, such as steadiness under fire, charisma and a willingness to lead regardless of personal risk. These are qualities that I want in a president, and McCain's story does not speak to those things because he doesn't possess them. He speaks of his honor and courage and all the rest, but those things alone aren't enough to make a good president. Jimmy Carter had such qualities in abundance and it didn't really work out for him. Lyndon Johnson was a man of, I would say, some rather weak character, but he was still the greatest president we've had in the past fifty years.
All things considered, strong character often coincides with effective leadership. But it doesn't always do this. The only thing predictive of strong leadership is, well, strong leadership. And when all is said and done, John McCain simply is not an effective political leader. What is surprising is that so many people believed this with precious little justification to do so.