With three weeks to go before a fateful Presidential election all politicians and activists must confront two inescapable truths:
1- In the midst of the unfolding crisis in the financial system, the economy isn’t just the major issue, it’s the only issue. Other controversies involving social and foreign policy disputes that seem disconnected from the financial breakdown, will waste time of campaigners and candidates and alienate the public in the process.
2- The people have become so profoundly skeptical of their political and business leaders that sweeping reform programs and positive proposals for change will gain no traction. When it comes to rescue and renewal plans for the collapsing economy, the public doesn’t understand and doesn’t trust them.
THE DECIDING FACTOR
If the candidates can’t grab attention for any issue other than the economic crisis, and if all prospective solutions will leave the public cold, what can they positively talk about in the final days of this bitterly fought election?
Each of the candidates will concentrate on warning the public about his opponent. They will make mirror image arguments: yes, current conditions are terrible and alarming—and, as a matter of fact, my opponent and his pals played a big role in creating this mess. What’s more, if he gets his hands on the White House, a bad situation will get far, far worse, bringing unimaginable pain to the American people.
Whichever candidate makes this argument most convincingly will win the election.
Despite the messianic expectations that earlier attended the Obama campaign, the people won’t vote this time on glittering visions of hope and change. They will vote for the candidate who scares them least, and who provides the best indication of allowing the normal processes of recovery to take their course.
COUNTERING THE OBAMA ADVANTAGE
Barack Obama enjoys a significant advantage when it comes to blaming his opponent and frightening the public. His line of attack is simple, direct and, by now, painfully familiar: “This current crisis is the inevitable result of eight years of the disastrous policies of George W. Bush— policies enthusiastically supported by John McCain. Now is the time for change and new directions, not more of the same.”
The McCain campaign already understands the way to undermine this argument – but they must begin to do so more energetically and insistently.
First, they must make it clear that Democrats deserve at least as much blame for the Wall Street meltdown as do Republicans— a case that’s already supported by common public attitudes. For the most part, the American people maintain a “plague on both their houses” attitude toward professional politicians, expressing contempt for both major parties. They demonstrate this contempt in public opinion surveys showing record low approval ratings for the President of the United States. But at the same time, they feel even more disillusioned with Congress—the one branch of government currently dominated by Democrats. In all major polls, George W. Bush draws two-to-three times higher approval percentages than the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid Congress. As John McCain tartly observes, Congressional approval is “pretty much down to blood relatives and paid staffers.”
The campaign must re-focus the public’s attention on the fact that the Senate and House that they despise are being run by Democrats— and that Barack Obama supports these people and means to extend their work. In this sense, a vote for Obama is truly a vote for “more of the same.” If the people recognize that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have provided disastrous leadership in Congress, why would they choose to put their ally and colleague in the White House?
Surely, it’s no coincidence that the current economic collapse occurred only after six years of the Bush boom, and largely coincided with the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2007.
McCain should follow the example of one of his heroes, Harry Truman, and run energetically against the “disastrous Democratic Congress” and the prospect of giving these bozos undivided control of our federal government.
The second point the Senator and his supporters must make involves distinguishing his personality and policies from George W. Bush. Most Americans realize that these two former rivals (W and Mac) have sparred on many issues, and cooperated on many issues, but McCain helps himself whenever he claims the “maverick” mantle and reminds voters of his many disagreements with Bush and his leadership.
SCARY AND DANGEROUS, BEYOND DOUBT
While countering Democratic attacks, McCain supporters must launch their own frontal assault on the Democratic nominee and make the case that his Presidency would inevitably intensify, deepen and prolong the current economic crisis.
It’s not enough to suggest that Obama is untested, inexperienced, or “not ready to lead.” The current situation calls for more than planting doubts about the Illinois Senator. Republicans must show that he is scary and dangerous, beyond doubt.
Three aspects of Obama’s leadership would wreck the economy even further and help turn a crisis into a catastrophe:
– Higher Taxes, Runaway Spending, Bigger Deficits
– Bad Character, Bad Values
– Unpredictability and Hyper-Partisanship
RAISING TAXES MEANS FEWER JOBS, SHARPER RECESSION
Barack Obama claims that under his plan, 95% of Americans will either get a tax cut or pay the same that they do today. It should be easy to feed the public’s natural skepticism about that pledge by reminding them of Obama’s many costly promises — $50 billion more per year to the UN to fight global poverty, $160 biillion a year for a new health care plan, $150 billion to encourage energy independence, doubling of the Peace Corps, universal preschool funded by the federal government, $4,000 a year to all kids who want to go to college and pledge future service, and new $1,000 per couple welfare checks (called “refundable tax credits”) to more than 40 million American households who currently pay no federal income taxes.
Independent analysis suggests that Obama wants to raise federal spending some $800 billion a year. Everyone understands that he can only do so my increasing the total tax burden or vastly increasing our deficit. He would no doubt do both as president.
Earlier in the campaign, Obama promised to pay for his vastly expensive new programs by ending the Iraq war and bringing the troops home. More recently, however, he’s admitted that he’d need to keep a substantial American presence in Iraq on a long-term basis – as many as 75,000 troops. Of the soldiers he would still remove from that conflict, he’s pledged to send most of them immediately to Afghanistan. It’s hard to see why troops in Afghanistan would save substantial money as opposed to troops in Iraq.
There’s no question that the total tax burden would increase under Obama. Instead of the 18% of the Gross Domestic Product currently consumed by the Federal Government, he could take the share as high as 22% or even 25%.
Most people instinctively understand that if our leaders make the total tax burden significantly heavier, it will hurt them eventually.
They can also see the disastrous logic behind raising spending and taxes in the current situation.
If, at a time of credit crunch, your boss must pay much more in taxes, he have less money on hand to pay you a raise or to hire new workers.
Even before the present crisis, Obama’s ambitious plans for governmental expansion looked frightening to many Americans. In today’s mood of insecurity and uncertainty, those vastly expensive schemes should seem terrifying and irresponsible.
CHARACTER COUNTS IN CRISIS
When Republicans try to bring up Obama’s unsavory associations with Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko or Jeremiah Wright, Democrats object that no one cares about such nasty trivia at a time of national financial meltdown.
But the right answer to this defense is that in a time of historic crisis character counts more than ever, and an effective leader needs to demonstrate the ability to inspire and unify the country.
As with Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and so many other politicians engulfed by scandal, it’s not the crime, but the cover-up.
If Nixon had admitted the role of his top aides in the ill-conceived Watergate break-in and apologized to the nation, he would have finished his term. If Clinton made no attempt to lie about his tawdry involvement with an intern, there would have been no impeachment.
And if Obama had come clean about his long-standing associations with radicals, America-haters, and crooked operators, and if he had expressed regret for his own poor judgment in earlier stages of his career, these connections would have disappeared long ago as an issue in the campaign.
As it is, however, his insistence that Bill Ayers was “just a guy in my neighborhood” or, even more preposterously, that he knew nothing of his violent, radical, wanted-by-the-FBI past, leaves him vulnerable to charges of duplicity and deception.
Integrity always matters for a prospective president, but it matters most of all at a time of economic collapse based largely on a loss of confidence in our leaders.
Questions about Obama’s background (“Who is Barack Obama?” John McCain has begun asking) go right to the heart of his suitability as a leader who can lead the way to economic recovery. The President must play the leading role in restoring public trust in the nation’s economic system. Obama is poorly equipped to play that part if he himself remains untrustworthy, and his background shows little support or sympathy for the free market system.
POLARIZING RATHER THAN PULLING TOGETHER
Most Americans understand that recovery and survival will require a joint effort involving all our institutions and all our citizens. Partisanship looks particularly petty in today’s Washington: the markets and the public responded very badly when Congressional efforts at financial rescue initially collapsed in a welter of recriminations and bickering.
As the Senator with the most liberal voting record of all his colleagues (more liberal than even self-described Socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont!), Obama hardly looks like a credible consensus politician. As McCain quipped at the first debate: “You can’t reach across the aisle when you’re starting off so far over to the left.” Moreover, Obama has never stood up to the interest groups, activists, or political bosses in his own party.
McCain has made a specialty of challenging his fellow Republicans – and some of the most strident right-wingers have never forgiven him for it. Obama, in contrast, has enjoyed crucial support from the most extreme elements in his own party.
Moreover, an Obama presidency promises to usher in a new era of bitterness and hyper-partisanship. He would preside in Washington alongside Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, with little reason to compromise or seek common ground with his opposition.
McCain, on the other hand, would work with a Congress that will no doubt remain Democratic, providing the divided government that Americans seem to prefer – particularly in hard times. People look back fondly and positively on the era of Newt Gingrich working reluctantly but effectively with Bill Clinton, or Tip O’Neill managing to jump-start the economy, save Social Security, and turn the corner in the Cold War by cooperating with Ronald Reagan.
Finally, Obama’s still unformed political personality and his constant bobbing, weaving and contradictory posturing on a wide range of issues, will deny the economy the stability and predictability it needs most as the launching pad for recovery. Corporate planning or restructuring suffers when business leaders have no idea what to expect in terms of tax rates or regulation or ambitious new programs.
In that regard, a financial crisis calls for solidity, not radical change.
RESPONDING TO PUBLIC PAIN AND FEAR
A decent politician should never exploit public pain and fear, but he must respond to it.
John McCain now faces a vastly different campaign than he did a month ago.
He doesn’t need to outbid Obama with big plans or soaring rhetoric.
He needs to reassure the people that their world won’t unravel further and that under his steady leadership, the bumbling Democrats in Congress won’t be allowed to push a shaky situation to a full scale crack up.
He needs to make it clear that Obama has disqualified himself for leadership in a difficult time on three bases — calling for bigger government and higher taxes, showing shady character and questionable values, and displaying hyper-partisanship and unpredictability.
After nearly two years of ceaseless and exhausting campaigning, John McCain now trails Barack Obama in what remains a close race.
Conventional wisdom says that disastrous economic news unavoidably assists Barack Obama, but why at a time of menace and insecurity should a desperate public turn automatically to an untried rookie with no background whatever in executive leadership or economics? At least McCain served for many years as influential chair of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Three weeks can constitute an eternity in politics, and the big events that have frightened the public and refocused their attention on the importance of this race have also served to launch what could easily become a brand new campaign.