Both of the parties’ political conventions are behind us, a financial crisis is upon us, a new vice-presidential nominee has entered the race (to be savaged, interviewed, and unleashed on the campaign trail to enliven her conservative base), and Election Day is less than fifty days away. Where are we and where are we going?
The race, if you look at national polls, is essentially tied. But those polls may be even less predictive than usual. The great wild cards are voter identification (which appears to be moving dramatically in the Republicans’ favor) and turnout (which was thought to be a huge Democratic advantage but may be neutralized in part by Governor Sarah Palin). What we can say for sure is that the race is very, very close. The closest analogy may be 2000 or 2004, where the popular vote was “within the margin of error” and the electoral vote came down to a key swing state. If the Democrats expected they would win this in a cakewalk or that defeat was out of the realm of possibility, they have gotten a disturbing wake-up call.
Although John McCain has pulled into a virtual tie, pundits will differ as to why. Is it purely the excitement generated by Palin? Or was his Convention speech a decisive step, a turning point in which McCain was able to convince voters that he really is the “change” and “maverick” candidate he has been pitching who might overcome voters’ reluctance to return a Republican to the White House. There is some support for the latter, as polling shows McCain scores better on that issue now than earlier in the campaign and is competitive with Barack Obama on “change.” That’s as startling as a poll that would show the candidates to be competitive on national security.
But it is external events which have shaken the race and may continue to do so. That occurred this summer when, after Russia invaded Georgia, Obama equivocated and McCain reasserted himself as the experienced and savvy national security guru. He got his “3 a.m.” moment and made the most of it.
Now, of course, we see the financial meltdown rock the economy and the race. Initially it might seem to bolster Obama who can ramp up his tale of woe about the George Bush-John McCain-Herbert Hoover economy and lash McCain for our current ills. But the crisis provides an opening for McCain on several fronts.
First, Obama has chosen to go starkly negative with ads on everything from a bald-faced smear tying McCain to Rush Limbaugh to a bizarre ad attacking McCain for not using a computer (his war injuries actually prevent him from using a keyboard but he is among the most computer-knowledgeable campaigners). The question remains whether, especially in a crisis, the key Independent voters will recoil from this display of nasty, old-style politics.
Second, Obama hasn’t really risen to the occasion on substance and wouldn’t even reveal on the day after the AIG take-over whether he supported the move. Is this another instance of excessive caution, indecision, and just plain unpreparedness to act in the role of a chief executive? Obama simply hasn’t yet sold himself as the one to lead in troubling times.
Third, Obama supports tax increases, and that in turn provides an opening for McCain. Granted Obama has trimmed his tax plans, but McCain has two responses: Obama’s record as a tax hiker suggests he has more than just taxes on the “rich” in store for us, and even tax hikes on the “rich” in the midst of an economic meltdown are a monumentally bad idea. The impact on New York alone would be disastrous.
Finally, the crisis plays into McCain’s theme of reform. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and the pattern of self-dealing excess they engaged in are at the heart of the crisis. And the central enablers of those two institutions were Congressional Democrats who received millions in campaign donations and then blocked reform and failed in their oversight role. And Barack Obama is front and center here. He received more donations from these entities than any other legislator save Chris Dodd.
McCain therefore now has an opening to widen that discussion to a broader look at who is the “real” reformer, contrasting his and Palin’s record of taking on their own party, actually enacting ethics reform (in Alaska and Washington D.C.), and opposing Congressional earmarks (McCain has put in for zero, Obama for nearly a billion dollars worth). That is turf on which McCain has the advantages of a superior record and a receptive audience of Independent voters looking to throw the rascals out of Washington.
Indeed, by the week’s end the McCain camp was firing on all cylinders — taking Obama to task for his relationship with Fannie Mae execs James Johnson and Franklin Ranies, lambasting Joe Biden for declaring that it was patriotic to raise taxes (Sarah Palin struck back on that one), and skewering Obama for his reticence. At an Iowa townhall McCain let it rip:
Senator Obama talks a tough game on the financial markets but the facts tell a different story. He took more money from Fannie and Freddie than any senator but the Democratic chairman of the committee that regulates them. He put Fannie Mae’s CEO who helped create this disaster in charge of finding his vice president. Fannie’s former General Counsel is a senior advisor to his campaign. Whose side do you think he is on? When I pushed legislation to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Senator Obama was silent. He didn’t lift a hand to avert this crisis. While the leaders of Fannie and Freddie were lining the pockets of his campaign, they were sowing the seeds of the financial crisis we see today and enriching themselves with millions of dollars in payments. That’s not change, that’s what’s broken in Washington. …
Senator Obama has never made the kind tough reform we need today. His idea of reform is what his party leaders in Congress order him to do. We tried for bipartisan ethics reform and he walked away from it because his bosses didn’t want real change. I know how to make the change that Senator Obama and this Congress is afraid of. I’ve fought both parties to shake up up Washington and I’m going to do it as president.
Those same Congressional leaders who give Senator Obama his marching orders are now saying that this mess isn’t their fault and they aren’t going to take any action on this crisis until after the election. Senator Obama’s own advisers are saying that crisis will benefit him politically. My friends, that is the kind of me-first, country-second politics that are broken in Washington. My opponent sees an economic crisis as a political opportunity instead of a time to lead. Senator Obama isn’t change, he’s part of the problem with Washington.
When AIG was bailed out, I didn’t like it, but I understood it needed to be done to protect hard working Americans with insurance policies and annuities. Senator Obama didn’t take a position. On the biggest issue of the day, he didn’t know what to think. He may not realize it, but you don’t get to vote present as president of the United States.
While Senator Obama and Congressional leaders don’t know what to think about the current crisis, we know what their plans are for the economy. Today Senator Obama’s running mate said that raising taxes is patriotic. Raising taxes in a tough economy isn’t patriotic. It’s not a badge of honor. It’s just dumb policy. The billions in tax increases that Senator Obama is proposing would kill even more jobs during tough economic times. I’m not going to let that happen.
I have seen tough times before. I know how to shake-up Wall Street and Washington. I will get this economy moving. I will lead us through this crisis by fighting for you, and when I am president we will be stronger than ever before.
The remaining six and a half weeks of the campaign will be fraught with peril and opportunity for both sides. The presidential and vice-presidential debates may either reassure or frighten voters about one of the tickets. New economic events and even a foreign crisis may again intervene. Palin may further energize the base or fail to live up to expectations. And we know one or both sides have an “October Surprise” or two up their sleeve.
In short, two years of presidential campaigning have exploded virtually every bit of conventional wisdom and left us with a tied race. If we have learned anything it is to remind ourselves we have no idea how this will all turn out. What we do know is that either candidate can win and that the voters, not the MSM, will decide the race. That alone is enough to worry Democrats and encourage Republicans.