Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The McCain scrutiny XVI

On the same day that the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted 504 points, cratering in the worst single-day loss of American equity value since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the same day that Wall Street witnessed both the implosion of the Lehman Brothers investment bank and the shotgun marriage of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain stood before the American people and said the American economy was just fine.

"There's been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets on Wall Street. And there is — people are frightened by these events," McCain said Monday. "Our economy, I think, still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong,” he said at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., speaking with the flat, almost rote sincerity of a used-car salesman working to move a car he didn’t want on the lot in the first place.

He followed up fast; realizing the faux pas in the making, he added “but these are very, very difficult times. And I promise you, we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street." But oratorically, it didn’t register; it had the weight of an offhand ad-lib.

McCain proceeded to retreat to a favorite redoubt in the face of an issue bigger than his field of knowledge: He proposed to form a 9/11-style commission to study the corporate abuses on Wall Street.

"People have a right to know when their jobs, pensions, investments, and our whole economy are being put at risked by the recklessness of Wall Street," he said. "I can assure you that if I am president, we're not going to tolerate that anymore. In my administration, we're going to hold people on Wall Street responsible."

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Beyond that there was more of what’s mostly become a catechism of talking points and barely suppressed outrage. But those seven “fundamental” words, in the wake of the events that preceded them earlier the same day, may be the single more clarifying and damaging sign of the disconnect between John McCain and the American people. If there was ever a moment that seemed to validate the criticism of McCain as out of touch with the realities of working Americans, this was it.

Sen. Barack Obama, McCain’s challenger for the presidency, seized the moment, finally coming up with a phrase memorable enough to stick with voters. “I just think he doesn't know," Obama said in Grand Junction, Colo. "He doesn't get what's happening between the mountain in Sedona where he lives and the corridors of power where he works. ... Why else would he say, today, of all days — just a few hours ago — that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong?

“Senator McCain, what economy are you talking about?"

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The sense of McCain’s disconnect has been getting worse. First, he was seriously flummoxed when asked for a threshold of “rich.” Then he forgot how many homes he and wife/stage prop Cindy McCain own. Then Mrs. McCain really connected with ordinary people by wearing a $300,000 wardrobe at the Republican convention.

His statements on Monday, and his seeming inability to GET IT — to grasp the gravity of the financial tsunami that enveloped Wall Street and started the swamping of the same Main Streets he’s campaigning on — are finally beginning to boil down into something people can get their minds, and their lives, around.

It was no help, of course, that former Federal Reserve sage Alan Greenspan said, on ABC’s “This Week,” that the current economy was the worst he’d encountered in his long career. “Oh, by far,” Greenspan said. “There's no question that this is in the process of outstripping anything I've seen and it still is not resolved and still has a way to go and, indeed, it will continue to be a corrosive force until the price of homes in the United States stabilizes.”

It didn’t help, either, that Greenspan, interviewed on Bloomberg Television, said the country couldn't afford the proposed McCain tax cuts without an equally large reduction in spending.

“I'm not in favor of financing tax cuts with borrowed money,” he said.

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But these latest miscues, bad as they are, were merely signs of something that’s been … deflating in the McCain campaign persona for weeks. There’s a slow winding down that’s underway, a kind of auguring in. Such political events are often described as a “train wreck,” but frankly that metaphor conveys too much speed to describe what feels — at a purely gut level, without polls or position papers or fundraising stats — like the beginning of the grindingly slow decline of the McCain campaign.

Consider: On Sept. 10, McCain spoke at a rally in Fairfax City, Va., an event that McCain campaign spokesman said was attended by 23,000 people. In fact, the number was apparently closer to 8,000. Crowd estimations are an always inexact practice, but MSNBC aired video showing a multitude of empty seats throughout the arena.

And unkindest cut: Karl Rove, the Republican Prince of Darkness Himself, said on Fox News that the McCain campaign had gone too far with a new series of TV ads that were blatantly ridiculous in their distortions of the record and character of Sen. Barack Obama. Rove, a guy who knows his way around a smear campaign, said McCain had gone “one step too far in, sort of, attributing things to Obama that are, you know, beyond, beyond the, the 100 percent truth test.”

Ya think?

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There’s a lot of momentum moving the McCain Straight Talk Express. Various people thought to have been kicked under the bus are still hanging around, Charlie Black and Phil Gramm, in particular. He’s definitely got cash in the tank. But there’s a steep uphill grade approaching. The borrowed energy of momentum and money alone will not carry it over the top. It's message time, and people are seriously asking themselves whether he's got one.

The much-ballyhooed Sarah Palin bounce is pretty much history. The Palin move was politically brilliant for about twelve minutes, but politics is one thing; governance is another. By any reasonable yardstick — certainly the same yardstick the Republicans would use as a bludgeon if she were the Democratic nominee for vice president — Sarah Palin is woefully unprepared for the office she seeks.

The old axiom of American politics couldn’t be denied forever: The ticket draws its energy, its attraction, from the top — not the bottom. And when the man at the top of the ticket can’t seem to grasp the enormity of perhaps the gravest financial meltdown since the Great Depression; when some in his own party say he’s gone beyond the bounds of common sense; when he has to resort to revisionist math to punch up his crowd count less than two weeks after the convention … there’s that winding-down feeling again.

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