Saturday, September 20, 2008

The McCain scrutiny XVII

On Sept. 2, the hubristic brinkmanship of the campaign of Sen. John McCain acquired what may be its final defining catchphrase — the phrase that will, if Sen. Barack Obama prevails in November, be etched in the gravestone of a tragically flawed presidential bid.

“This campaign is not about issues,” said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, in a moment of profound overconfidence in the wake of the ascendancy of McCain running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

This, of course, was before the events of this week, when the market tanked, Wall Street titans were dissolved or bought on the cheap, and the United States effectively socialized the market economy with a bailout package whose total cost to taxpayers may reach one, trillion, dollars.

This was before it came painfully clear to a candidate who admits to knowing nothing about the economy that the economy is The Issue of this campaign.

Therein lies the hollowness at the center of McCain’s increasingly disastrous bid for the presidency: In a world where national economies are more and more interwoven on a global basis, in a nation where home values have eroded steadily and the consumer (the engine of the U.S. economy) is under increasing pressure to make ends come close to meeting, the Republican candidate for the American presidency has admitted he doesn’t know what to do.

This is why, on the Friday after the most turbulent financial period since the onset of the Great Depression, McCain thundered on the campaign trail about Obama’s lack of judgment, alleging corruption, and announcing his plan for a “Mortgage and Financial Institutions Trust” to take bad mortgages off the hands of wounded financial firms.

This is why on Friday, McCain said he would propose the firing of Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Christopher Cox, despite the fact that the president cannot fire the SEC chairman, the head of an independent regulatory agency not subject to dismissals by a sitting administration. ABC News reported that one such firing of the director of an independent agency (FDR tried to dismiss a member of the Federal Trade Commission in 1935) was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

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The current malaise about the McCain campaign extends beyond this sad snapshot of fiscal incompetence. Rick Davis said the campaign wasn’t about issues, but was really a referendum of personalities and personal attributes. If that’s the case, McCain is in just as much trouble.

At a recent town-hall meeting, McCain lauded Palin’s bona fides vis-à-vis national security this way:

"She has been commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard. Fact. On September 11 a contingent of the Guard deployed to Iraq and her son happened to be one of them, so I think she understands national security challenges."

Never mind the fact that the governor of a state doesn’t command the National Guard. Never mind the fact that Palin’s son, Track, was in the Army, not the National Guard.

It’s not the first example of McCain’s improvisational approach to reality. This week, in response to questions about his willingness to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, McCain confused or ignored the distinctions between Spain, a component of Europe, and Latin America — switching the location of a major European power and placing it in a completely different hemisphere.

Earlier in the campaign season, we discovered more evidence of McCain effectively creating his own new world atlas, a breathtaking reordering of geography and world government. In the McCain world view, Czechoslovakia still exists, Iraq and Pakistan share a common border, Shiites and Sunnis are interchangeable blocs of the Iraqi people, Somalia and Sudan have traded places, and Vladimir Putin is the president of Germany.

“Not about issues”? About personality? Consider what what was found in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: More Americans found Obama “personally likable” and that he “connects well with people” by margins of between 2:1 and 3:1. “McCain's greatest advantage is on being perceived as ‘personally qualified to be president.’ By a two-to-one margin McCain (55%) is seen as more personally qualified than Obama (27%).” But this was before the wave of McCain personal gaffes and blunders. This was before The Issue exploded on the national scene.

Team McCain has jettisoned more than a few of his presumably senior advisers from the Straight Talk Express for various missteps (McCain economic hand puppet Carly Fiorina was the most recent.) McCain should consider extending the same courtesy of dismissal to Rick Davis, his campaign manager.

“This election is not about issues,” Davis said on Sept. 2.

McCain has again frantically waved the banner of jingoist attack-dog populism, apparently secure in the delusion that issues don’t matter, that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" — something he said on the campaign trail at least 22 times this year, borrowing the same phrase uttered by President Herbert Hoover in the runup to the Great Depression.

On Friday, Barack Obama huddled in a Miami strategy session with former Federal Reserve head Paul Volcker, and former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers — old hands at the rudder of the national economy, during the Clinton administration.

All were presumably secure in the knowledge that this presidential election is about nothing but issues.
Image credits: Hoover, National Archives and Records Administration. McCain: Public domain.

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