DICK MORRIS’ ’08 PLAY-BY-PLAY
Volume 1, #37
October 5, 2008
MCCAIN: THE LONG ROAD BACK
Sarah Palin’s undoubted success in her debate with Joe Biden came as a relief to her supporters and a shot in the arm to McCain’s backers. Her doubters were left frustrated as she crafted a new style of political discourse, rooted in the vernacular of every day American life.
But her victory is little more than a respite in the bad news that has engulfed McCain’s candidacy since the start of the financial crisis. The key question that looms over this race is: Can McCain recover?
My bet is that he can and probably will. It is too early to say if he can still win, but he most likely will make the race a nail bitter once again. October will be his month. Here’s why –
So far the general election campaign has been through three stages. The summer was dominated by rising gasoline prices. Energy is normally a jump ball between the two parties, an issue which they are equally likely to win. But the Republicans adroitly used the need for gasoline to promote off shore oil drilling, embodied in the “drill, baby, drill” slogan Palin used to good effect in her debate. By separating the requisites of energy independence and low cost gasoline from those of climate change and environmental preservation, the Republicans and Democrats diverged and the GOP gained important new support.
(That dichotomy will only grow in the future. With the coming advent of plug-in hybrid cars, conservatives will tout the potential of electricity to replace gasoline as our basic fuel while liberals will lament the impact of the increased need for power generation on global carbon emissions).
After the Republicans won the energy round of the election, they followed it up by scoring a decisive victory in the vice-presidential round. The McCain strategy of feinting with a man and then choosing a woman for the spot will go down in history as one of the great head fakes of all time. By pretending he was going to choose Romney or Pawlenty, McCain induced Obama to go with Biden, spurning Hillary’s pretentions to the post. Then, after Obama was locked in, McCain pulled a switch and named Palin, upsetting the Democratic plans and threatening the party’s hold on female voters. Palin’s subsequent spotty performance in her media interviews called the McCain victory in round two into question, but her spectacular debate victory erased that concern.
But no sooner had John McCain and Sarah Palin won round two than the financial crisis burst upon the scene. Inevitably the crisis would have worked to the Democrats’ advantage no matter how it was handled. After all, Wall Street is the denizen of Republicans not Democrats and its obvious greed and mismanagement would redound to Obama’s advantage just as shenanigans by labor leaders would have had the opposite effect.
However, McCain made it worse. He had just spent his whole convention emphasizing how different he was from Bush, what a maverick he is, and how populist his policies are. Then, in a flash, by supporting the bailout legislation and turning his nose up at the Republican alternative, he threw it all away. In one week, he undid all the good his convention had done and he found himself back in the dog house with his long time roommate, George W. Bush.
McCain even highlighted his collapse by signaling a “suspension” of his campaign to allow him to concentrate on saving the nations financial structure by returning to Washington. Once there, he faded back into the woodwork, all signs of originality or even creativity extinguished. He became, again, McCain, the Bush clone. When House Republicans showed some spunk and spirit and turned down the bailout package, their courage merely served to underscore their candidate’s timidity while the commitment to less government highlighted the hypocrisy of McCain’s pretentions to the issue.
With the first presidential debate, coming in the middle of the bailout drama, McCain dashed hopes that he would lead the charge against Wall Street greed and big government largesse by mildly saying that he hoped to be able to vote for the bill. His populist rhetoric against Wall Street seemed to matter little when viewed against the lack of courage of his actions.
And when McCain voted for the bailout bill even though it contained such notable earmarks as exempting children’s toy wooden arrows from the federal excise tax and promoting economic development in Samoa and Puerto Rico, he even compromised on the issue he had spent his entire first debate selling – opposition to earmarks. Far from his vow to make earmarking legislators “famous” with his veto pen, he meekly OKed their extravagance.
After this performance, it is hard to see how anyone can take McCain seriously again.
It is unclear at this writing what the impact of the Palin debate victory will have on the presidential polling, but it is probably safe to assume that, while voters will pause to admire her performance, they will soon resume their march to Obama. The combination of Bush’s mismanagement, the greed of the big business Republicans on Wall Street, and the eagerness of the Administration to shower the greedy with taxpayer money will give Obama the issue he needs.
So how can McCain come back?
Obama can’t handle success. He is peaking too soon. He will probably score a double digit lead in the next week and will wilt in the accompanying scrutiny.
Remember what happened in the primaries. When the focus was on Hillary, until mid-February, she met defeat after defeat. Voters looked at her and saw someone too tied to the establishment, too uncertain in her opposition to the war, and too dependent on the special interests and lobbyists. Obama, glimpsed out of the corner of their eye, seemed a new face promising change in a discredited status quo.
But then Hillary faded and Obama vaulted into the lead. Suddenly, she was an afterthought and the country wondered what kind of president Obama would make. We got to know the Most Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the terrorist William Ayers. Obama described us as “bitter” in our faith and politics. Michelle denied ever having been proud of our country. And Hillary, no longer the object of our attention, scored upset victories in Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. It was only the residual lead Obama had accumulated in the early February primaries that permitted him to win the nomination.
The lesson is that in modern politics, if the voters are looking at you intently, you will soon die. Nobody can run in a referendum on him or herself and expect to win. When the focus was on Hillary, Obama bloomed. When it shifted back to him, he wilted.
Similarly, when the focus was on Obama throughout the summer, as he came off his primary victory and campaigned in Europe, McCain grew in strength. During the vice presidential round, McCain managed to grow even with the spotlight shining on him, and on his running mate. But soon it grew too hot and scalded him. With the focus on McCain during the bailout – and with Obama hiding under the desk hoping not to be noticed – the Republican’s vote share plummeted.
But now the focus will revert to Obama. He will accumulate a big lead and all will assume that he is going to win. What kind of a president will he be? How will he handle the financial crisis? Will he raise taxes and kill the economy? Is he really in the mainstream of American values? What about Wright and Ayers? The questions will grow as his poll numbers advance. The more McCain seems like an afterthought, the more voters will wonder about Obama.
While the most important impact of the financial crisis is to discredit Republicans and the doctrine of less regulation, the second most important is to hammer home the point that these are dangerous times. The possibility of collapse looms ahead and many fear a return to the days of the Great Depression. Many thought it would take a terrorist attack to give voters a sense of unease at having a neophyte president, but perhaps a financial crisis of this magnitude will do so as well.
Obama has to face the fact that a tax increase now would be a total catastrophe. The normal reluctance of voters to allow a tax hike is now accentuated by the delicate balance in the economy. Polls show that almost 60% of voters believe that Obama will raise their own personal taxes, belying his claim that 95% will have a tax cut.
In addition, any lingering hope of social progress under Obama has just been flushed away by the bailout. The money he would spend on health care, education, infrastructure and the like just walked out the door of the Treasury bound for Wall Street. He obviously cannot afford to fund his commitments, much as he won’t admit it.
And, of course, if he won’t raise taxes (or can’t) and will not cut back on his social spending, the inevitable result will be a huge deficit. Voters are quite ready to believe that it is the deficit to begin with that caused a lot of our current financial crisis. (Polls show voters are willing to blame everything but foul air on the deficit).
So Obama is caught in a three-sided vice. Either he has to admit that he will raise taxes or that he will slow down his social spending and break his campaign promises or that he will run a ruinous deficit. Faced with this Hobson’s choice, he will equivocate. But McCain can use the two remaining debates to pin him down and to underscore the fact that Obama has no real idea of what he will do if he wins.
In the meantime, voters think they know what he will do – raise taxes. And they don’t buy that it isn’t their own taxes that will go up. And, even if they did, they must increasingly realize that raising capital gains taxes would only make the financial situation even worse.
But doubts about Obamanomics are only one of the fronts McCain can open against Obama. The Democrat has never fully recovered from the Wright and Ayers controversies. His recent statements that Ayers is just “someone who lived in my neighborhood” are patently false as recent print sources indicate. The McCain people can resurrect these two demons and sidetrack Obama, pushing him out of the mainstream of American voters.
So look for McCain to gain and Obama to fall during October. Will it be enough to beat Obama? We can’t tell. But the October Surprise is likely to be an unexpectedly close race.
***COPYRIGHT EILEEN MCGANN AND DICK MORRIS 2008. REPRINTS WITH PERMISSION ONLY***