Saturday, September 20, 2008

McCain's Mistakes

This has been a dramatic week, not just in the financial markets, but in the election.

A week ago today, we were talking about McCain sustaining his bounce and the brilliance of his choice of Palin to energize the base and turn the election in his favor.

Today, Nate Silver is giving Obama a 71% chance of winning, 78% if adjusted for cell phones, and predicting over a 300 electoral vote margin for Obama. If those results simply hold steady, we're talking about a decisive victory for Obama.

That's a huge swing in a week. Certainly, when historians look back to analyze this election, the near melt-down of the world-wide financial markets will be considered a key event.

Yet the fortunes in this election did not turn on exterior events alone. It looks, in hindsight, like McCain has made a series of mistakes that have helped return Obama's lead.

1. Chosing Palin. After the convention it was hailed as a genius move. It seemed that only Democrats saw the perils of the Sarah Palin scandals. Now, however, her numbers are tanking, as people find out more about her. But what if. What if McCain had put Romney on the ticket, and instead of having a convention that appealed to the base, had genuinely taken on the far right and run toward the middle. Let's say he had been able to keep up the "experience" attack against Obama and run on the idea of "restoring competence." Well, maybe the convention wouldn't have given him such a great bounce. Maybe it wouldn't have been such a dramatic story line. Maybe he wouldn't have a celebrity VP. But he might have been able, this week, to get the upper hand on Obama, claiming that his ticket had what it took to guide the country in a time of crisis. It could be McCain's numbers, this week, that rose to overtake Obama's, and not the other way around. Instead, with Palin on the ticket, he's allowed Obama to paint him as reckless and rash, not qualities that look good as markets melt down.

2. Attacking the media. Knowing that Palin is indefensible on her readiness, Steve Schmidt, McCain's campaign manager, has launched a classic Republican attack on the media. A great gambit - except when there's big news. When there's big news, like this week, the public turns to the media for information. And feeling bruised by camp McCain, they no longer have any interest in covering McCain talking points without scrutiny. A less anti-media campaign, tied with a Romney VP, would have allowed McCain to be able to spin this week's coverage of his policy positions much more effectively. Not only that, he'd have Romney's money to help him make the point.

3. On Monday, as the catastrophic week unfolded, McCain uttered the disastrous line: "I believe the economy is fundamentally sound." It wouldn't be such a haunting line were it not almost identical to Hoover's. If there is one line that will sink McCain, this is it. It's not simply that he sounded - and in retrospect, looks completely - out of touch. It's that this line set him up to flounder much of the rest of the week, as he needed to change prescriptions, lash out, and backtrack to attempt to keep up with unfolding events. Obama had the advantage of being of the party out of power - so he could simply bash Bush-anomics, tie McCain to Bush, and get out of the way of saying anything stupid until events unfolded. McCain could have simply said, "these are unfortunate events. Long-term systemic problems need to be addressed in order to put our economy on sound footing. We are fully behind Secretary Paulson and believe in his competence to handle the issues, but will watch the situation carefully." Support the idea that people in power can handle this, that the problems are historical and bipartisan, and emphasize the need for experience. Instead, McCain sounded in denial: which is the last thing the public wants more of.

4. Assuming this wouldn't be a campaign about issues. Even if it weren't, anything could happen - and it's good to have something in your pocket in case it does. Let's look at Obama. People derided his trip abroad over the summer. But let's call this Obama's insurance. He knew foreign policy was his weak spot. If some big troubling foreign policy news story broke in September or October, he would need that trip to fall back on and give him at least some issue position he could reasonably take. An economic disaster, for McCain, is the equivalent of a terrorist attack or major war for Obama: an issue-based development that plays to his weakness. But McCain, unlike Obama, took out no issue insurance. He should have known that the economy was his weak issue - had perhaps done his own tour of duty with Paulson and Bernanke - and had some positions in the bag for just such a development.

5. Attempting to second guess the problem without any facts. This mistake may take some time to play out still, but I believe McCain's series of pronouncements this week did little to help him: first, calling for a 9/11-style commission. Then blaming Wall Street. Then claiming it would be irresponsible to bail out AIG. Then supporting the bailout. Then blaming the SEC chairman. Then blaming Obama. And finally, AFTER Paulson essentially says it's time to put a trillion dollars of taxpayer money into the problem, suggesting that a savings-and-loan-bailout-style Resolution Trust, which is about 1/10th of Paulson's proposal, would be sufficient to handle the problem. Either McCain's been getting terrible economic advise this week (which is another way Romney could have helped him), or he's literally been panicking and trying to come up with some kind of populist rhetoric that will stick. The Republicans have had success throwing everything at the wall against Obama until something took hold: but when it comes to issues, the public wants reassurance. McCain, oddly, didn't sound reassuring at all. It undermines his brand and will be hard to recover from, since tests under fire don't come around every day. (UPDATE: As predicted, this is not playing well: even George Will is criticizing McCain for being recklass with these proposals.)

So, while events of the current week have not been good for McCain, he's made several mistakes that have exacerbated his problems. With only six weeks left before the election, there's little time left for him to regain his stride.

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