The backdrop of Republican infighting for tonight’s presidential debate is not good for John McCain. I was surprised to see such vocal and critical comments from William Kristol, a longtime John McCain ally, so close to the election. In case you missed it, here’s what Kristol said: “It’s a stupid campaign,” Kristol said in remarks reported in the New York Times. “It’s really become a pathetic campaign.”
Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, answers Kristol in an op-ed today. While he doesn’t cite Kristol by name — another former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, and a New York Times columnist, David Brooks, have also be leveling complaints about the McCain campaign — read it and you’ll get the point.
John McCain has reached this stage of criticism among conservatives. Some attack him for “frenetic improvisation,” while others urge him to frenetically improvise. His campaign is in a “defensive crouch” while also being “obnoxious” in its “phony populism.” McCain’s running mate is a “fatal cancer” who should “read more books.”
This kind of cheap shot is, thank goodness, the prerogative of the commentator — an option I will doubtlessly exercise in the future. But having once been on the political side of the divide, I remember how truly obnoxious such advice can become. If only the candidate would fire his entire campaign staff and travel the country in a used Yugo, speaking in the parking lots of 7-Elevens, the gap would be closed. If only the candidate would buy three hours in prime time and give a bold, historic speech (which has been helpfully sent under separate cover), the entire election would be turned around. If only the candidate would finally highlight his opponent’s ties to Colombian drug cartels, the illuminati and the British royal family — or perhaps abandon all this suicidal negativity — the election could certainly be won. And yes, above all, the candidate must be himself.
McCain might benefit from shifts in strategy: a retooled stump speech has already been rolled out. But sometimes a candidate who is down in the polls is not an incompetent but a bystander. While America remains a center-right country, this may well be a Marxist election in which economic realities are determining the political superstructure.
The diverging political fortunes of Barack Obama and McCain can be traced to a single moment. In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points. Did McCain suddenly become a stumbling failure? No, the world suddenly went into an economic slide. Americans blamed the party with executive power, which is also the party most closely tied in the public mind to bankers and Wall Street. None of this was fair to McCain, who has never been the Wall Street type. But party images are vivid, durable and almost impossible to shift on short notice.
Previous to this economic free fall — and after his transformative vice-presidential choice — McCain was about tied in a race he should have been losing by a large margin. The public clearly had questions about Obama’s leadership qualities. But the McCain campaign also proved itself capable of constructing an effective narrative: Obama as lightweight celebrity, McCain as maverick reformer. Until history intervened.
Following the onset of the crisis, McCain was left with flawed options. He reasonably chose to work for a responsible bailout while hoping the markets would stabilize quickly. Instead, the bailout proved politically unpopular and the markets gyrated like the Pussycat Dolls. Then McCain raised Obama’s past association with William Ayers — a valid attack if properly raised. (Can anyone doubt that the past political association of McCain with a right-wing terrorist would attract some attention?) But this accusation naturally looks small compared to the nation’s outsized economic fears.
Here’s where I come down in this debate. I think Gerson’s spot on with the fact that something very much akin to a tidal wave hit the McCain campaign when the drastic economic downturn struck in September. Fair or not, as Gerson asserts, the party in control of the executive branch wears the after-effects of a major crisis.
But Kristol and company have a point too. The McCain campaign has compounded its problems by raising questions about Obama that do look small at a time like this (as Gerson acknowledges.) I know from my own reporting that McCain campaign operatives examined the Deval Patrick-Kerry Healey race in 2006. They saw how Healey’s tough law and order ads not only failed but also sent the campaign into a downward spiral. Those mean-spirited ads alienated independent swing voters and had no resonance in what was then very much a “change” election. Yet despite that knowledge they made the same mistake.
I’m not sure how you take a candidate who has been in the Senate for more than two decades and never seriously dealt with the economy and run him in the midst of an economic crisis. My sense is that if McCain had come out of his time-out with a serious and newfound commitment to the issue and made the case that he was the best man for troubled times, he would have had to be doing better than he is now. But, as I’ve said before, the tide is against him.