Tuesday in Michigan, Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, stood before the nation wanting to present himself as a soldier in a new kind of war. Speaking to reporters for the first time since Aug. 13, he seemed legitimately pained when he talked about the dire economic events of the past few weeks.
In this brief moment, McCain strained to find a new voice, one that could bolster his campaign. While agreeing in principle to the money requested by the Bush administration for its $700-billion bailout plan, he made certain to anyone listening that he would not follow the administration’s script line-for-line. McCain, in a five-point proposal, demanded greater accountability and transparency in the package, along with a demand that no top executive from a rescued company walks away with millions when the burden on the American people is so great.
For a man who’s sworn to keep us safe, McCain seems to have been presented with a new opportunity. McCain now has the chance to use the nation’s economic straits to his advantage, to take ownership of an issue that could dominate the national debate through Election Day and after. He can be the steady force of reason — a candidate who puts the public ahead of party for the greater good. The question remains, though, whether he can pull it off.
“During tough times — in national security or the economy — that sense of security becomes persuasive,” said Leslie Sanchez, former director of the Bush administration Initiative on Hispanic Education and now a CNN political commentator. “This could be an advantage to John McCain. He can show bi-partisanship and an economic prowess in a situation that very few people understand. You show leadership in many different ways. You show it by virtue of sounding the alarm, as he did, when he called for more regulation for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and openly looking at the package Paulson’s put together with a critical eye. Take the reins. Make the decisions America needs to see.”
The economy is McCain’s supposed weak spot. He’s been pretty candid about how little he knows about it and reporters have commented on his lack of interest in the topic. His issue was foreign policy and Iraq and maybe he believed he could get through the election cycle without dealing with economic matters. But now he has to address something he’d hoped he wouldn’t have to face.
“Clearly this is a game-changing moment for both of them,” said Sara Taylor, a Republican consultant who served as the political director in the Bush White House. “The candidate that best seizes control of the economic issues and shows he understands them best will likely be the next president.”
In other words, whomever seems closest to making the public believe he gets it will win.
This is the case in any election when economic issues take center stage. In 1980, with a public drowning in inflation and national malaise, it turned to Ronald Reagan. In 1992, while George H.W. Bush marveled at the grocery store scanner, William Jefferson Clinton felt people’s pain and arrived triumphant in Washington as a new kind of Democrat.
But this is different. The collapse of our credit system, the failure of banks, is a perilous scenario. With the nation so strong for change, and 80 percent of the public saying the current administration is on the wrong track, all logic says this should be Obama’s race to lose.
But it isn’t. National polls show the two men in a dead-heat, and virtually deadlocked in battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Michigan. The American people, it seems, don’t know whom to trust with their future, now that the monetary foundation appears to be crumbling. As unlikely as it seems, this could be McCain’s moment.
But how can he lay claim to an issue that he himself has admitted a disinterest in?
“Americans always elect a president they believe is future-oriented,” said Sal Russo, a Republican political strategist. “They saw that in Ronald Reagan — despite his age. They saw him as an agent of change and progress; and Jimmy Carter was the status quo. What McCain has to do is talk in terms of the future. To say he’s the man most prepared to change the economy. He’s been running against the establishment his whole life. He has to play up the idea of this cantankerous maverick, willing to forge his own way. It has to be cast in those terms.
Tony Marsh, a GOP strategist, outlined a similar strategy. “What he needs to do,” Marsh said, “is to articulate a specific vision for the future. Obviously, he has to be distinct and different from Obama and what Obama’s saying — and even from what Bush is saying. If he’s able to articulate a distinct and compelling vision for the economy that assures people he understands the difficulties they face, and offers some hope for growth in the relatively near future, I think he’ll succeed.
“To some extent with this issue,” Marsh said, “McCain is in position that is neither left or right. But is where most people are. And that is not at all bad positioning for him — from a strictly political perspective.”
It might, however, be a bad spot for him from an ideological perspective.
As has been well chronicled this year, the coalition crafted by Reagan, which has served as the GOP’s pumping heart for nearly 30 years, has remained disheartened and disengaged. While the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might have revved up the social conservatives, it did little for the fiscal conservatives — those preaching smaller government and free markets.
McCain’s comments in the past week have done little to assuage them. By feeling people’s pain, as Clinton once did; then promising a new “Morning in America,” then presenting a vehement form of populism, McCain offered little more than confusion.
Nowhere was that more evident than last Thursday. On the stump, McCain seemed to channel his inner Teddy Roosevelt. “Mismanagement and greed became the operating standard while regulators were asleep at the switch,” McCain declared, “The primary regulator of Wall Street, the Securities and Exchange Commission kept in place trading rules that let speculators and hedge funds turn our markets into a casino. …The chairman of the SEC serves at the appointment of the president and has betrayed the public’s trust. If I were president today, I would fire him.”
Fallout from the right was swift. After taking McCain to task for his use of the facts, The Wall Street Journal editorial page slammed him: “In a crisis voters want steady, calm leadership, not easy, misleading answers that will do nothing to help. Mr. McCain is sounding like a candidate searching for a political foil rather than a genuine solution. He’ll never beat Mr. Obama by running as an angry populist like Al Gore, circa 2000.”
William Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor then lashed out against the $700-billion bailout in The New York Times on Monday. In his op-ed column, Kristol asked McCain to be a man of courage and stand up to the stimulus package that would forever change our economic system, could leave the government more intertwined with the economy than even John Kenneth Galbraith’s “New Industrial State.”
“Critics would charge that in opposing the bailout in standing against an apparent bipartisan consensus, McCain was being irresponsible,” Kristol wrote, “Or would this be an act of responsibility and courage?”
Kristol was hitting McCain with one of the words the Republican nominee cares about most: Courage. Those of us who’ve spent time around the man, who’ve followed him across the country, know how much words like courage and honor mean to McCain, and how hurt he feels when he thinks they’re under attack. Without the pundits behind him, McCain finds himself again a loner within his own party, something he’s grown used to over the years.
But being a maverick also allows freedom from the ideological chains of the party base. And the American public increasingly sees itself as independents, free from the traditional affiliations. It’s this void McCain could step into, confident and strong.
“He has to show himself to be a good steward of the economy,” Sanchez said, “He’s not an ideologue like Ronald Reagan. He’s someone that hits the ground and does the work. And you could speculate that whoever wins in 2008 might not be the candidate who wins in 2012. The economic issues out there are so toxic. What we need right now is someone to drive the bus, not redesign it. Everyone gets on, everyone gets off.”
McCain would probably bristle at the thought of being a bus driver — despite his affection for his “Straight Talk Express.”
But what we face right now is the great unknown. It is a landscape where America is struggling to come to terms with what has happened to the underpinnings of its economy and what it means for the future. While Obama can often represent something extraordinary, McCain is the ordinary man, whose story, whose beliefs we understand.
In times like these, Americans often look for the stability and steadiness of our fathers — men whose failings we understand, but whose authority and grasp of the world we respect and even love. McCain now has the chance to be that man — picking us up in a time of need.
But the problem with father figures is we outgrow them. Americans must ask if this daddy dearest will let us off in a place we really want to be.
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