Instead, the stunning selection of Palin aside, which sent his campaign surging, McCain ran a race that seemed designed to lose gracefully and maintain his standing with the Washington press.
As he has seen how softball failed him in 2008, but hardball succeeded for him in 2010, one wonders if McCain has any regrets. And when he gets back to Washington, will he revert to the maverick for whom the press fell so hard in 2000?
For conservatives and tea party activists, the lesson to be taken away from McCain's campaign is clear. Confrontation and conflict are not to be avoided, but sought out.
And, as one looks around the political landscape, the issues that are turning toward the tea party and populist right are astonishing.
Even Democrats are now parroting the right on border security and amnesty. Voters are overwhelmingly endorsing English as the national language. Affirmative action is being voted down in deep blue states like Michigan, California and Washington. Pro-life is gaining among the young. Abortion on demand has lost it feminist luster.
Same-sex marriage has been rejected in all 31 states where it has been on the ballot. Even Obama refuses to endorse it and back up the California federal court, and now appears suddenly hesitant to impose the values of Fire Island on Parris Island.
The election of 2010 will surely turn on the economy -- jobs, deficits, debt. So, too, may the election of 2012.
But there are other aces and face cards in play.
But if the GOP takes the advice of its establishment, and the neocons who seek power to start another war, and walks away from cultural, social and moral issues, which are far more popular than the party itself, folks who care about the character of the country and national identity should walk away from that party, and find outliers who will pick up the banner and carry it forward.
Americans motivated by causes need to maintain their freedom and independence of both parties, forming what George W. Bush liked to call "alliances of the willing."
If the tea party has taught us anything, it is that the mindset which says, "Lead, follow or get out of the way," is the quintessential ingredient of political success and future progress.