Fundamentally, McCain Has Something to Worry About

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) smiles for the cellphone camera during a visit to a General Motors plant in Lake Orion, Mich.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) smiles for the cellphone camera during a visit to a General Motors plant in Lake Orion, Mich. (By Stephan Savoia -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008

John McCain has a fundamentals problem. It is political as well as economic, and it remains the biggest obstacle standing between the Arizona senator and the White House.

McCain didn't single-handedly create this problem, but he made it worse Monday when, as Wall Street was melting down, he uttered words -- "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" -- that totally muddied the real message he meant to deliver. Barack Obama has hammered him at every stop since as a man out of touch with reality.

Were McCain known as a student of the economy, this instance of a badly delivered statement would matter little. Because he is known as someone who is not, it matters plenty. McCain has responded by ratcheting up his rhetoric about cracking down on Wall Street and its regulators in Washington.

As with his Monday misstep, once again the message is mixed. Guns blazing, McCain is promising to ride into town to . . . oversee the creation of a commission to study the problem. He is speaking out in favor of regulation but against a history of opposing a heavy government hand. He has expressed his outrage, but what is the balance he would strike between the old and new McCain?

In many ways, the opening provided to Obama by McCain's verbal misstep is the least of his problems. What should worry the McCain camp most is the intersection of a renewed focus on the economy and the underlying political climate that has created such difficulties for McCain and his party all year.

McCain's advisers have noted for months that the political environment could hardly be worse for their candidate. None of them has ever suggested that the political fundamentals remain sound. Quite the opposite.

President Bush's approval rating appears stuck close to its lowest-ever levels -- hovering just above 30 percent. Nearly eight in 10 Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. The Republican Party's image is worse than the Democrats' and well below the levels it reached when Bush won reelection four years ago.

McCain's party made gains after his convention, but it's not clear whether that was a temporary or lasting improvement. Four years ago on Election Day, the exit polls showed an electorate at parity between Republicans and Democrats. That's not likely to be the case in November.

Combine that with the economic indicators. The stock market's plunge has wiped out recent gains and more. The unemployment rate now stands at 6.1 percent and has risen a full percentage point since March. Four years ago this month, it was at 5.4 percent and heading down. The economy has been shedding jobs monthly throughout the year.

In the past, the unemployment rate was the most sensitive political indicator. Today, both the jobless rate and the stock market can send shivers of anxiety through the electorate -- as they are this week. Nothing in all of that is good for John McCain's hopes of winning the White House.

Only once since World War II has a political party maintained control of the presidency for three consecutive terms, which was from 1981 to 1993, with Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Dwight Eisenhower's eight years were followed by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson's eight years, which were followed by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford's eight years, which were followed by Jimmy Carter's four years.

Voters declined to give Democrats a third term after Bill Clinton's presidency, despite a robust economy and a nation at peace. After the tumult of George W. Bush's eight years, what might compel voters to reward the Republicans with a third consecutive term in control of the White House?

McCain has managed to make the best of this terrible environment. His pick of Sarah Palin proved enormously effective in the short term. His party appears newly energized, even enthusiastic about its ticket, even if they still distrust the man at the top of it.

He has reinvented himself for the final stretch of the campaign -- or perhaps found a voice that had been missing throughout this election cycle. As in the primaries, he has been reduced to basics, and they have served him well over the past two months. His best hope of winning is to make the campaign a test of character.

How long can he sustain all this? Absent external events, he was doing well. With the economic news of this week, the polls hint at a deflation in his position. The playing field has once again tilted slightly toward Obama, who now must take advantage of it.

This remains as competitive a race as many had forecast. National polls are tight. Battleground states are tight. But the underlying structure that has governed this campaign from the start has not improved. That is the real fundamentals problem for John McCain.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company