Upcoming Debates May Let McCain Regain Footing

Posted September 22, 2008 at 4:19pm

‘I do agree that fundamentally America has an economy that is strong.”

“America’s great strength is its diversity, its hard work, its good financial statements, its broad capital markets, its enormous natural resources and its work ethic …” This was a statement made last Tuesday by a well-known political leader, but probably not who you think.

[IMGCAP(1)]It was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) responding to reporters’ questions about Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) statement the day before, “the fundamentals of the economy are strong, but these are very, very difficult times.” Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), like most of the broadcast and print media, conveniently omitted the second half of the statement in his attacks on McCain.

It makes one wonder whether Obama thinks Bloomberg “just doesn’t get it” either? Not likely, but then, he’s only courting Bloomberg, not running against him.

McCain learned the hard way that in politics, timing is everything. His attempt to instill some calm in a volatile situation may have been well-intentioned, even presidential. But in the current political and media environment, how and when you say something matters as much what you say.

Telling the American people that the underlying economy is strong when millions just lost a big chunk of their retirement savings isn’t a campaign tactic likely to win votes. While the race is still razor close, the mistake cost McCain his lead and his momentum.

It seems clear, however, that the underlying fundamentals of the Obama campaign have also changed over the past 10 days. Its tactics, from Obama’s sharp personal attacks on McCain to the harsher tone of its latest TV ads, have demonstrated that it reached a tipping point, casting aside all pretense that this is a different kind of campaign.

So, instead of coming up with real ideas for reforming Wall Street, the candidate of change now offers generic platitudes about “getting the country back on track.” The candidate of the future now poses for photo ops with past Clinton administration economic policy advisers, several who bear at least partial responsibility for the current crisis.

And the candidate who promised to run a different kind of campaign takes the gloves off. Last week, Obama consistently attacked McCain’s integrity and motives in dealing with Wall Street. Obama so distorted McCain’s long record of financial regulatory oversight that the Washington Post, in a stinging editorial Friday, took him to task and defended McCain.

The Post pointed out, among other things, that in 2006, McCain “pushed for stronger regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — while Mr. Obama was notably silent” and went on to say, “Mr. Obama’s attack does not give a fair reading of the McCain record.”

Yet, despite the editorial, Obama later that day said, “It is critical at this point that the markets and the public have confidence that their [the Fed and Treasury] work will be unimpeded by partisan wrangling and that leaders in both parties work in concert to solve the problem at hand.”

For some of us, this new strategy seemed oddly familiar — attack McCain but tell voters “I feel your pain.” Is it just possible Obama and Bill Clinton talked about something more than the work of the Clinton Foundation over their “makeup lunch”?

McCain had a bad week, but this race is far from over. Still, he cannot afford to let Obama define him further. In 1992, the country wasn’t in recession, but Clinton’s empathetic rhetoric and delivery convinced voters otherwise. George Bush actually did know what a grocery scanner was, but an erroneous news story created a suburban legend that Bush could never shake.

McCain must more clearly define himself. The debates, beginning Friday, give him that opportunity; and in doing so, he will regain the initiative because, in the end, Obama’s real views and his agenda are far to the left of the vast majority of Americans.

Although this first debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy, the events on Wall Street and in Washington this week will be a likely topic of discussion. Here, McCain has a substantive issue advantage. He opposes tax increases. So do the majority of Americans who, polls show, are dubious of any promise to increase taxes on anyone, including the “rich.”

Unlike Obama, he also has a track record of fighting against government spending and government waste that puts him on the side of the taxpayer. Also, he has been pushing an “all of the above” approach to economic energy independence, a matter of both economic and national security, popular with a public tired of high gasoline prices.

Foreign policy matters. But the candidate who clearly explains his plan to protect the economic security of America’s families by preserving their savings, their retirement and the value of their home, by alleviating the rising cost of living, including taxes, and by putting the government back on a sound economic footing, will win this election.

The upcoming debates give McCain the opportunity to define himself by clearly defining his economic vision for the people of this country. With the race this close and only 40-odd days away, there is no margin for “bad” weeks on either side.

David Winston is president of the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.