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How to Beat McCain's Bounce

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sarah's a hit with the ladies -- white ladies, anyway. Monday's Washington Post-ABC News poll, which showed a newly deadlocked presidential race, registered a 20-point bump for the McCain ticket among white women since the previous poll, taken before Sarah Palin was loosed on the world. Among these women, Barack Obama's eight-point lead has turned into a 12-point deficit.

No wonder Republicans have been criticizing identity politics all these years. It works. And nobody is benefiting from it more than the selfsame GOP.

The Republicans come charging out of their convention bolstered by a hopped-up base, the empathetic support of working-class (chiefly married) white women and the mantle, however ludicrous, of change. There's not much Obama can do about energized GOP faithful, but there are any number of things he can do to erode voters' infatuation with Palin, and all manner of things he needs to do yesterday to debunk the Republicans' claim to the banner of change.

Anyone familiar with polling knows that when voters start liking a candidate, they start giving that candidate higher marks than they previously had on a wide range of issues, even though the candidate's record and positions on those issues may not have changed at all. This, along with the symbolism of Palin's selection, helps explain why voters' estimation of McCain's economic policies has risen: Obama's lead on the question of who can better handle the economy has abruptly shrunk to just five percentage points, and that change has been driven by white women. Before the conventions, they preferred Obama on the economy by 12 points; now, they prefer McCain by 10. (Other national polls show a similar narrowing of Obama's advantage on the economy.)

If Obama and his strategists can't reclaim the economic issue after eight years of Republicans presiding over the first recorded recovery in American history that failed to boost family incomes, and now over a slowdown that has its roots in the GOP's mania for deregulation, they ought to find another line of work. They need to ask John McCain at every turn: What Bush economic policies do you repudiate? Where have you broken with Bush on the economy?

After all, McCain is now merrily calling for tax cuts at every campaign stop. That's his economic revitalization program. Not coincidentally, that's also been George W. Bush's economic revitalization program for eight years: Cut taxes chiefly on the rich and their investments will enrich us all.

We all know how well that's worked.

Obama should have several distinct advantages here. First, his proposed tax cuts, unlike McCain's (which chiefly renew Bush's giveaway to the wealthiest Americans), are directed heavily toward working- and middle-class Americans, including most of the white women who are flirting with the Republicans. And while McCain attacks Obama's proposed tax hikes on the rich as job-killers, Obama's increases are modeled closely on those that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993. Republicans made the same argument then: that Clinton's tax hikes would cost jobs. Problem is, the U.S. economy grew by 22 million jobs during Clinton's presidency. It has grown by just 5 million during Bush's presidency, and that number is falling every month as the slowdown deepens.

Since McCain is advocating the same tax policies that Bush enacted, why would anyone expect a different result?

Second, Obama's economic policies are keyed, as McCain's are not, to creating American jobs in a global economy. The problem with across-the-board tax cuts for corporations and the rich is that with each passing year there's a higher likelihood that those cuts will be invested by their recipients in jobs in China and India. Obama, by contrast, proposes eliminating tax cuts for companies that take jobs abroad and establishing tax cuts for companies that create jobs at home. Obama is also committed to spending $150 billion during his term in office for a green-jobs-alternative-energy program that would create millions of non-offshorable jobs. McCain makes rhetorical bows to helping alternative energy industries, but he's made no commitment of public dollars to back up his speechifying. Add his lack of commitment to green jobs to his faith in traditional trickle-down economics, and it becomes clear that McCain has no vision whatever for how to create American jobs in the 21st-century economy.

There are a few other points of economic differentiation between the candidates. Obama offers plausible plans to make college and health insurance more affordable; McCain doesn't. Obama opposed a number of proposed trade accords; McCain supported every trade treaty of the past three decades.

McCain, candidate of economic change? Even if Sarah Palin brings a working-mom pedigree to the ticket by schlepping her kids around with her while on state business (and collecting per diems for it, too), all that McCain-Palin promises is four more years of economic dysfunction and decline.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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