I am confident that when the political obituaries are written, as they are after every election, these past two weeks will be seen as the turning point. John McCain's campaign is collapsing faster than the economy, and his erratic and confusing behavior is to blame. It began Sunday, September 14 with his insistence on continuing to describe the economy as "fundamentally sound," a move that I still struggle to understand. Perhaps he wanted to appear as the candidate that could calm America's fears, or maybe he was hoping to contrast himself with what he perceived to be Obama's fearmongering. Either way, he should have chosen his words more carefully. After being lambasted yet again by Obama, newspaper editorial boards, and TV news anchors, he descended into a doublespeak haze that he has yet to emerge from. Within hours of the "fundamentals" comment, he sought to clarify his comments by saying that by fundamentals he clearly meant American workers, gracing us with a novel definition of the word. It was a classic political juke, and if it remained an isolated foul-up McCain could have had a much better week. But he was just getting warmed up.
Unfortunately for McCain, his awkward comment came on one of the worst days in modern financial history. Lehman Brothers, one of the world's largest and oldest investment banks, collapsed. Unable to find a buyer, their stock dropped 94% in a single day as they filed for bankruptcy protection. Thanks to the interconnected nature of the financial world, and the fact that many firms had chosen to ride the credit default swap gravytrain, this collapse began to spread. Merrill Lynch, another titan from before the Great Depression, was lucky enough to find a buyer in Bank of America. Yet somehow, McCain seemed to be under the impression that this was what "strong" looks like. Someone in his campaign must have whispered in his ear that perhaps this wasn't the best way to shake Obama's claims that he was out of touch. After all, with 7 houses, 13 cars, and a plane, it is difficult for average people to think he understands their problems. McCain began a series of awkward pivots in an apparent attempt to regain some credibility, but ended up digging himself deeper into the hole. Ostensibly, in McCain's world the economy can both be "fundamentally sound" and in "crisis" at the same time. A-mazing.
The problem kept spreading. AIG, the massive insurance company, was the next company to creep up to the precipice. As late as September 16, McCain came out in opposition to bailing them out. The very next day, when the Federal government declined to follow his advice and announced an 85 billion dollar rescue package, McCain praised it as the right thing to do given how widespread the impact of letting AIG fail would be. Not content with his faux pas count for the week and trying to appear presidential, McCain called for the firing of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox. On Thursday the 18th he said, “The chairman of the SEC serves at the appointment of the president and in my view, has betrayed the public’s trust. If I were president today, I would fire him.’’ Well, someone didn't do their homework, because the President isn't allowed to fire the SEC chairman. Yes, he is appointed by the President, and like Cabinet positions the choice must be confirmed by the Senate, but the SEC is not part of the executive branch. As an independent agency, it is immune from the whim of the President. Later, perhaps after some more whispers from his campaign about how Cox was not generally viewed as to blame for this crisis, he backtracked and called him, "a good man."
With that, McCain was pretty much done for the week. However, as it became clear over the weekend that Obama was seen by a growing number of Americans as more fit to be trusted with the economy, McCain decided to do something to shake things up. With his poll numbers slipping all over the place, and with it becoming increasingly obvious that the economy was likely to dictate the conversation for much if not all of the rest of the campaign season, he got desperate. In a move that will be endlessly compared to his choice of Sarah Palin for the VP slot, this past Wednesday McCain decided to suspend his campaign. Wanting to appear presidential and somehow above politics, he declared that he would grace D.C. with his presence (he has missed more votes this year than every other Senator except for Tim Johnson, who had brain surgery, and is the only Senator to have missed a majority of votes in the 110th Congress with 64%). He also called for a delay of the first Presidential debate, saying that it was time for Democrats and Republicans to come together, put politics aside, and solve this crisis. It was classic Rove: do something completely political while saying the complete opposite. Well, to quote one of my favorite Fark memes, (again) he didn't think his cunning plan all the way through.
Wanting to be the white knight is all well and good, but you better have something to offer. Bringing the media frenzy literally into Congress as they attempted to weave together a delicate agreement probably wouldn't help, as was quickly pointed out by Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Barney Frank. Frank, who is leading the negotiations on the House side, called it, "the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys." Meanwhile Obama pointed out what everyone was thinking by saying that presidents have to be able to deal with multiple things at the same time, and postponing the debate at a time when the American people were looking to both candidates for some direction was a bad idea. At the bipartisan meeting (originally Obama's idea) at the White House yesterday, which apparently was one of the most dramatic in recent history, McCain offered no firm stance on anything. He twiddled his thumbs, remaining silent for long stretches of time while Bush attempted to retain order over the actual participants in the discussion. After the meeting, Henry Paulson literally knelt down in front of Nancy Pelosi, begging her to not withdraw support for the agreement. He should have been kneeling in front of John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, because apparently it is only the House Republicans that refuse to get on board.
As this crisis gets worse, I can only imagine that McCain will follow suit. His erratic behavior on a variety of fronts over the last few weeks, beginning with a week full of ridiculous ads attacking Obama, does not bode well for him. This week especially, Obama has very clearly been the calm, stable leader that Americans are desperate for in these tumultuous times. Political ideologies run a pretty wide range in America, but a trait that everyone looks for is consistency. Tonight in Oxford, Mississippi Barack Obama will show up ready to debate foreign policy and the economy. McCain's campaign has repeatedly said that he will only show up if a deal is reached, something that appears increasingly unlikely thanks to the paralyzing fear of anything smelling of socialism that grips House Republicans. If he holds to his word, McCain will appear to be hiding. Given the fact that he has nothing constructive to add in Washington, this time-out he has given himself will only hurt him. Additionally it will give Obama the chance to have 90 minutes of prime time coverage with millions of people watching, where I suspect he would hold something of a town hall or interview with Jim Lehrer. On the other hand, if McCain shows up with no deal having been reached, everyone will wonder why he made the ridiculous threat in the first place.
McCain's kneejerk reactions and surprising moves do him no long-term good. His choice of Sarah Palin initially brought him a lot of enthusiasm from The Base that he hadn't seen during his entire campaign. His poll numbers were boosted, his crowds got much bigger, and things were looking up. It quickly became clear, however, that Sarah Palin was a flash in the pan. Her novelty and "hockey mom" persona made her the most popular of the four people in the election. Her lack of depth and inexperience quickly caught up with her, and she has now become the least popular of the four. McCain's "maverick" moves (is anyone else getting tired of the word?) are subject to the same law of diminishing returns as any other repeated stunt, especially in such a serious atmosphere. This latest one was even less calculated than the Palin pick (which is really saying something), and it might be his undoing. The wheels have come off the bus, and this late in the game it will be difficult to salvage things.
As it has been this whole time, this is Obama's election to lose.