McCain Must Get a Grip on the Economy
Aside from forcing Obama to explain his math, McCain has several tactics at his disposal which might level help the playing field and prevent the voters from taking their economic worries, justified or not, out on him.
First, he has moved energy policy to the front burner. Much of voters' economic woes have centered on gas prices. McCain has done an effective job in not just coming up with a multi-faceted energy program, but painting Obama as Dr. No and indifferent to the immediate needs of voters. If energy prices stay high, Obama sticks to the highly unpopular position of opposing domestic gas drilling voters may perceive that McCain is the more pragmatic of the two in addressing a key pocketbook issue, thereby eroding some of Obama's domestic policy advantage.
But even that may not be enough when broader concerns about housing and unemployment grip most Americans. As Sabato explains, "Energy policy is important but by no means does it rise to the level of the economy for voters."
Second, McCain may try to focus voters on what Obama is actually proposing: lots of income distribution and not much on the growth side. In this regard, McCain may have a receptive audience. Polling shows that voters by a wide margin favor efforts to boost the economy rather than redistribute the wealth. The latter is the overwhelming focus of Obama's pitch, and McCain may make headway by reminding voters that bolstering economic growth is at the heart of his plans.
And McCain has begun to pick up on Obama's record of raising taxes 94 times in his brief tenure in the Senate and attack his plans for multiple new tax hikes. If the economy is bad now, McCain's team argues, than across the board tax hikes, massive re-regulation and Obama's protectionist trade stance (which he is not attempting to tone down) would spell doom for the economy. It is an open question, however, whether Obama will stick to his tax plans (he has already hinted he would be open to lowering corporate tax rates) and continue to provide such a juicy target for McCain.
Third, McCain has still to wrap up his economic plan into a coherent and appealing package. To compete with "change," McCain will need to explain how his grab-bag of ideas (e.g. choice on health care, free trade, tax reduction, and energy independence) fit together. And while McCain loves to talk about his record as fiscal hawk and enemy of earmarks, it is far from clear that "less government" is a winning message these days.
Conservative journalist Yuval Levin has suggested a reform-minded agenda and theme, but McCain has yet to embrace it or fully escape the charge that his administration will be the third Bush term. Others have offered revised tax plans which do more than simply pledge to adhere to the Bush tax cuts. If McCain is to counter Obama's "something for nothing" promises, he will likely have to take some of this advice and construct a responsible and easily understandable package that emphasizes his market, pro-growth approach.
And finally, the economy may be a big, but not the sole, factor in the election's outcome. Pollster and analyst Charlie Cook says that he has "seen a one-dimensional presidential election yet. . . Elections have many moving parts." Put differently, if McCain can convince voters that Obama lacks the knowledge, resoluteness and even character to be president, they may decide that they cannot manage to trust Obama with their economic futures. As Cook says, "this election is about one person, Obama."
So recovering from the Gramm gaffe was the easy part. Crafting a compelling economic agenda and convincing voters not to trust Obama with their economic security are the tougher. But the McCain camp -- with increased focus on the economy and heightened attacks on Obama -- seems to have recognized that helping turn around a losing war and sporting a war hero's resume aren't likely to win him the election.
To do that, he will need to convince voters that he, not his opponent, is the one to calm their economic fears.