McCain's Ploy

A spectator watched yesterday as workers continued constructing the set for the presidential debate in Oxford, Miss.
A spectator watched yesterday as workers continued constructing the set for the presidential debate in Oxford, Miss. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)
By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Slipping in the polls? Concerned that Americans may be paying more attention to the declining economy -- and even supporting economic regulation again -- than to your own stellar leadership abilities?

What's a Republican presidential nominee to do?

If you're named John McCain, the answer became apparent yesterday afternoon -- make the solution to the economic crisis all about you. Suspend your campaign. Pull out of tomorrow's debate -- a trivial exercise merely allowing Americans to judge the two candidates side by side. Change the terms of the nation's economic discussion from the course we should take, and the defects of the laissez-faire model that got us here, to the indispensability of John McCain, leader of leaders.

(Besides, if tomorrow's debate goes on as scheduled, it will doubtless focus on the economy as well as foreign affairs, its announced topic. McCain sees foreign policy as one area where he can outshine Obama. Only by rescheduling the debate after the crisis has passed can he be sure he will have his moment in the foreign policy sun.)

Yesterday's Post-ABC News Poll showed Barack Obama opening a nine-point lead over McCain, chiefly because of the economic anxiety flooding the nation and the belief of most Americans that Obama is more in touch with economic realities than McCain is and has a better sense of how to navigate both the current crisis and America's long-term economic challenges. But the McCain plan for victory this November never counted on Americans picking McCain on the basis of the issues.

As his strategists saw it, they had to confine the discussion to a comparison of the character of the two candidates. Alas for McCain, reality intruded over the past week, distracting the public from McCain's stellar attributes as a decisive leader with news of an impending economic collapse. So the task for his managers has been to diminish this new story to just one chapter in the ongoing saga of John McCain, the man who rides to the rescue.

Can McCain pull this off -- persuading the public to forget how he and his fellow Reagan Republicans changed the nation's economic rules in ways that allowed Wall Street to run amok, and refocusing its attention on his decisiveness at this moment of crisis? I doubt it.

For one thing, America may be a republic of amnesiacs, but deep in some seldom-used brain lobe, it does recall that its two political parties have differed on questions of regulation and stimulating the economy, a comparison that does not now work in Republicans' favor. For another, presidential debates aren't distractions from the business of the nation. However confining their formats may at times be, they are central to the business of democracy, and suspending that business so that a lowest-common denominator consensus can be reached in Washington -- or so that McCain can complain that Obama is an obstructionist if he doesn't go along with McCain's proposals -- is an affront to American voters.

McCain's ploy was transparent. To counter the public's preference for Obama's economics over his own, he would get both of them in a room and emerge proclaiming that they had reached agreement, that they had no differences. In fact, they have very real differences. McCain wants to retain tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; Obama wants to create tax cuts for all but the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. Obama favors policies -- through investments in infrastructure and education and through legislation enabling Americans to join unions without fear of being fired -- to build the base of the economy, while McCain's record is one of opposition to such policies. Obama favors trade agreements only when they raise labor and environmental standards with our trading partners and protect them here at home; McCain has supported every trade pact that has weakened such standards and has never said one word about protecting our standards or raising them abroad.

Comparisons such as these are odious, however, to McCain's prospects.

He cannot win on the strength of his positions. He can only win on the strength of his character. Problem is, McCain's character, as we have seen in his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, is heavy on decisiveness and weak on judgment. In this, despite his campaign's protestations, a McCain presidency would be very much an extension of George W. Bush's. The president helped McCain out last night by inviting both candidates to Washington today to put their imprimatur on a deal that seemed near completion. At the risk of making McCain's gesture look less heroic, he also made it look less self-absorbed.

But self is McCain's selling point. He is either the man on horseback riding to the rescue, or he is nothing -- or, more precisely, the loser come November. Obama, Lord knows, has his flaws, but he does not seem to believe that the nation's crises are primarily about him.

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