John Lennon once sang that "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." So, it seems, is politics.
The news this morning that two of Wall Street's most storied firms, Merrill Lynch & Co. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., were following their distinguished former competitor Bear Stearns toward extinction was met with misery and fear in living rooms and conference rooms across the country--and rightly so. "The biggest reshaping of the financial industry since the Great Depression," wrote Bloomberg News. "Catastrophe," added the New York Post. But something tells me that Barack Obama's brain trust didn't react quite so pessimistically. For two weeks, Chicago has struggled to stay in the news as John McCain and Co. have distracted the nation--or, more accurately, the nation's newspapermen, magazinists, on-air bloviators and blogospheric scavengers--with a lot of yadda about lipstick, pigs and kindergarten sexcapades. But today's massive financial shakeup finally gives us a more important topic to obsess over: the economy. For Obama, this disastrous news is a huge opportunity--a chance not only to be heard addressing an issue that matters, but also to pivot away from a losing message to one that could actually win him the election.
To get a sense of the shift, it's worth looking at Obama's "other plans" for today--in other words, what might have been. The campaign clearly intended to spend the day attacking McCain as a dishonorable Bush clone. In St. Claire Shores, Mich., Joe Biden was scheduled to deliver, in the words of a campaign press release, a "major address expanding on the case that electing John McCain would just mean four more years of George Bush’s failed economic policies and that the only change in John McCain is the dishonorable and deceptive campaign he’s running." "If you’re ready for four more years of George Bush, John McCain is your man," Biden was supposed to say. "Just as George Herbert Walker Bush was nicknamed 'Bush 41' and his son is known as 'Bush 43,' John McCain could easily become known as 'Bush 44'." Meanwhile, Obama put out an ad called "Honor" (above) slamming McCain for his "vile," "sleazy," "dishonest" "smears." The point, of course, was to battle back: to show that Obama had "taken off the gloves"--yet again--and was responding, as campaign manager David Plouffe promised he would, "with speed and ferocity to John McCain’s attacks." No more Mr. Nice Guy.
Without the collapse on Wall Street, Obama's negative theme probably would've dominated the news. After all, the political press only covers fours things, as the Illinois senator himself has noted: "polls, scandals, gaffes and attacks." But while a loud anti-McCain message and aggressive anti-McCain posture may have been the only way to break through the static, it probably wouldn't have done Obama much good with voters in the end. That's because undecideds don't find either part of that message--a.) McCain is "Bush 44" or b.) McCain is a dishonorable liar--particularly convincing.
Here's why. Every insurgent politician since the dawn of history has accused his opponent of being "more of the same." Given that 70 percent of America disapproves of Bush's job performance, Obama's eagerness to follow in their footsteps is understandable. But the problem is that voters aren't dumb. They realize that John McCain is not George W. Bush. He's a different person--and for most folks, that's enough. As liberal blogger Ezra Klein has noted, "[the American people] know John McCain because he ran against George W. Bush in 1999 [and] spent a few years being a pain in George W. Bush's ass. Yes, as a Republican, McCain has often voted in accordance with the Republican agenda ... [But voters] get people better than they get policies." What's more, they probably have an instinctive sense that McCain has reached across the aisle more often than Obama, with Democrats making up 55 percent of his partners over the last two Congresses (Obama only partnered with Republicans 13 percent of the time).
McCain knows this. It's why he spent the entire Republican convention claiming that he's a "maverick" who will "shake up Washington" and "put country first." And it's why Obama's advantage on the question of who will "bring the needed change to Washington" plummeted from 32 percent in June to 12 percent after St. Paul. The fact is, campaigning against Bush--i.e. "more of the same"--won't work unless swing voters agree that McCain IS Bush. But increasingly they don't. By continuing to push this narrative ad nauseam, Obama risks sounding like the reflexive, angry partisan in the race--while leaving McCain to deliver the message of "postpartisan change" all by himself.
The second half of Obama's planned message--the part where he pivots from convincing voters that they don't want "more of the same" to convincing them that they don't want John McCain--may not have fared much better. Call it the Outrage Offensive--citing the mainstream media to claim that McCain is running a "dishonorable and dishonest campaign." The problem here, as Slate's Mickey Kaus noted this morning, is that most voters don't really care what my MSM chums and I say about anything anymore; these days, truth is the eye of the beholder. As regular Stumper readers know, I happen to think that McCain's lipstick onslaught was idiotic and condescending. But as Mickey rightly points out, there's "no way of knowing what Obama meant by 'lipstick'--just because he and McCain used the word earlier doesn't mean he didn't think using it now, after Palin's speech, didn't add a witty resonance." The truth, in other words, is often indeterminate. As a result, when Team Obama--or the media--lectures the public on what's "true" and what's a "lie," it "plays into some of the worst stereotypes about liberals--that they are preachy know-it-alls hiding their political motives behind a veneer of objectivity and respectability." Ultimately, Obama is preaching to the choir--and the rest of congregation isn't even listening. In 1988, Michael Dukakis released an ad called "Counterpunch" claiming that the election was about President George H.W. Bush "dragging the truth into the gutter." "I'm not going to let them do it," he vowed. We all know how well that worked out for him.
That's why today's tragic economic crisis is such a political godsend for Obama--because it changes the subject. This morning, McCain told rallygoers Jacksonville, Fla., that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." Noting how starkly McCain's message clashed with the bleak news from Wall Street, delighted Democrats immediately seized on his slip as evidence (along with his inability to remember how many houses he owns and his statement that only those who make over $5 million are rich) that the Republican nominee is "out of touch" with the economic concerns of average Americans, a group of people his top economic adviser once called "whiners." "Apparently his 26 years in Washington have left him incapable of understanding that the policies he supports have created an historic economic crisis," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "This is someone who's going to defend the Bush economic policies all the way until November," added Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. In St. Claire Shores, Mich.; and Grand Junction, Colo., Biden and Obama delivered the day's "McCain is a dishonorable Bush clone" message as planned. But given the headlines, it's now their remarks on McCain and the economy that are making news.
"It’s not that I think John McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of most Americans," Obama said. "I just think doesn’t know. He doesn’t get what’s happening ... Senator--what economy are you talking about? What’s more fundamental than the ability to find a job that pays the bills and can raise a family?... What’s more fundamental than knowing that you’ll have a roof over your head at the end of the day?... The fundamentals we use to measure economic strength are whether we are living up to that fundamental promise that has made this country great--that promise that America is the place where you can make it if you try."
This--not lipstick, not lies, not Sarah Palin--is the conversation Obama wants to be having: a conversation about why his economic values trump McCain's. But that's only half the battle. Now that the press and the public are finally paying attention, Obama can't just say that McCain is out of touch and call it a day. He has to explain what he would do differently--and better. He has to sell his plan for righting an economy still reeling from the real estate and mortgage crises--something he shied away from doing today, preferring instead to rely on the "same vague... pitc[h] he has sounded over the past few months for fixing what ails the country.” Until now, neither candidate has won the confidence of voters on this issue. Remember: there are only 50 days left until the election. Here's hoping, for the country's sake, that we don't spend too many more of them pontificating about pigs.
6 months ago