The presidential race is now entering a new phase: the debates, the battle over the debates and the battle over credit — or blame — for the bailout. But the larger question remains: has the dynamic of the race been permanently altered or is this a period of flux, which will only be resolved when the last spin from the last debate subsides?
The reviews from the debate trickled in over the weekend. Many on the left were infuriated Barack Obama did not do better. And among the pundits there was some agreement. Whether it was David Broder or Maureen Dowd, there was a suspicion that Obama had been insufficiently resolute and allowed John McCain to prevail by remaining on offense. Nevertheless many in the media clung to the notion that while McCain might have won, it would not be “enough” to change the storyline of the race.
The Obama camp whined that McCain had been condescending by asserting that Obama “didn’t understand,” but neither the mainstream nor the conservative media seemed to be buying that one. The real danger for Obama: that his inability to recall the name of the slain soldier on his bracelet would become an iconic gaffe moment akin to George H.W. Bush’s glancing at his watch in the face off with Bill Clinton in 1992.
But the Friday debate aftermath was eclipsed by the battle over the bailout. By Sunday morning it appeared there was a deal, albeit one that needed to be reduced to writing and sold to members of each side. Drafting proceeded during the day and the measure was finally put up on a website — which promptly crashed. (Metaphor alert!) The Republicans had struggled mightily and succeeded in knocking out a provision which would have sent “profits” from the resale of mortgage-backed securities to ACORN, the left-wing group which has been the subject of numerous voter fraud and corruption investigations (and for whom community organizer and lawyer Barack Obama once worked). They also had to beat back a last minute attempt to pass an automatic “fee” — that is a massive tax — on security firms if the government did not recoup its loses in negative auctions of the so-called “toxic” securities it acquired in the bailout. The end product did appear to be “better” than what had been feared.
All in all it was a rather remarkable achievement for House Republicans who were in danger Thursday of being steamrolled by the White House and Democrats. That would have occurred — if Nancy Pelosi were willing to pass the measure purely with Democratic votes. But she was looking for cover, and therefore, was forced to listen to and actually negotiate with her Republican opponents in the House.
The votes will be rounded up, but barring another surprise the bill will pass and a feared Monday market meltdown may be avoided. The bill is hugely unpopular, but this is a rare instance in which politicians had no choice but to disregard the howls of their base and the voices urging intransigence and obstruction. In short, having eliminated all other possibilities, they were forced to be responsible.
Now the race to grab credit for the bipartisan bill is clearly on.The Democrats will claim that they prevailed despite the “disruptive” involvement of John McCain who rushed back to the Capitol and briefly suspended his campaign last week. The problem with that: it doesn’t mesh with the facts. It was Harry Reid and Hank Paulson who had summoned McCain to Washington. And it was McCain who surmised that the House GOP was definitely not on board — a requirement which Pelosi herself had set for a successful deal. McCain will also argue that the principles he laid down last week — greater transparency and oversight and limits on executive compensation — were in fact achieved.
Barack Obama played no role, it appears, in the deal making. But he may well benefit in the short and long term from the refocusing of the race on our economic woes. Certainly his standing in the polls has improved since the crisis began. The counterargument — that the Democrats and he specifically contributed to the crisis by averting their eyes and indeed blocking needed reforms of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – has not yet penetrated to average voters.
So in the week ahead the fight will be over who won and who lost in the bailout bill, whether all incumbents are in mortal danger of a voter backlash and whether in the wake of a deal both the markets and the presidential race will return to “normal.” The Obama camp hopes the race has permanently been altered, with him in the lead. The McCain camp is betting this is the beginning of the final sprint, one in which the public is going to learn a whole lot more about Obama’s past connections and present liberal views.
Based on the course of events to date, the crowd which assumes we now have certainty in the race is, frankly, daft. If we have learned anything in this contest it is that just when everything is clear — it isn’t.