AUTHOR'S NOTE (BREAKING): McCAIN WILL ATTEND TONIGHT'S DEBATE
AUTHOR'S NOTE (REMINDER): THE KEY GRIP WILL BE LIVE-BLOGGING TONIGHT'S EVENT
To say of this election's fall finish that it hasn't unfolded the way John McCain and Steve Schmidt were planning is to engage in droll understatement. After a respectable (if also, for some of us, infuriating) Sarah Palin bounce from his own convention, McCain appeared to have all the initiative in the national dialogue--repositioning himself as the only candidate who could say he was for change and then actually deliver on it.
That message resonated with a still-credulous pool of undecided voters to such a degree that one of my colleagues had to stop wearing a button that said, "I'm Voting for CHANGE!" because people kept approaching her at gas pumps to ask which candidate she was intending to endorse with that sentiment. Everything seemed to be perfectly in place for the third incarnation of Lee Atwater: Set the other guy back on his heels with a convention that makes the discussion all about him instead of issues; grin smugly like the guy who's still holding his best pin-move in reserve; steal the other guy's big issue; attack, attack, attack.
Seems like a long time ago now, doesn't it.
So--what the hell happened? Well this author has been saying it almost from the very moment that it was unfolding in real time, but you'll have to forgive him if he takes this opportunity to say it now, again: The wheels started coming off exactly two weeks ago, when Sarah Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson aired on the same day that John McCain was savagely, pitilessly filleted by the undecided-friendly panelists of ABC's midmorning talk show, The View.
From there we had the Lehman / AIG / Merill meltdown the following Monday, during which Mr. McCain could be found standing on a stage in Jacksonville telling us in Bush-ian tones of befuddled helplessness that the fundamentals of our economy are strong. In the Lee Atwater playbook this is known as "stripping the bark off," by which one campaign wounds the other on likability grounds, then pins it with an unpopular position on a key issue. You show Mr. Dukakis riding in a tank, and then you run the Willie Horton ad. Not the other way around. If there's irony in this whole mess (and surely there is), it is that this time around the Republican nominee inflicted this exact, textbook maneuver--on himself.
After a week in which the Obama people hammered McCain mercilessly and deservedly for his track-record advocating for less government oversight, week-2 of the crisis began with Treasury Secretary Paulson pitching a three-page bailout bill with a price tag so whopping as to cripple the fiduciary discretion of all successive Presidents of this great land for the foreseeable future. The public outcry was immediate and bipartisan and left only Senator McCain with the narrow corridor for wiggling, since his patrons at the White House were (and are) just about the only people in the country who seem to want the bill.
Oh, and entirely by the way in case you missed it, the Treasury quietly let slip yesterday that they have no basis whatsoever for the $700 billion price-tag. "We didn't base it on a specific data-point," an un-named but high-ranking Treasury official said, "we mostly just needed a really big number."
...I'm sorry, let me just repeat that: The same Treasury Department that has been telling us all week that the economy will come totally unhinged if this bill isn't passed immediately, admitted yesterday afternoon that it doesn't actually have the faintest idea where it got the figure for how much this was going to cost. And if you can decide for yourself whether that's hilarious or horrifying, do me the favor of telling me too, please.
By Wednesday McCain had all but irretrievably lost Colorado (along with New Mexico and Iowa) and was receiving news that North Carolina and Missouri are both now tied. McCain's Senior Campaign Advisor and longest-serving confederate, Rick Davis, was accused--on the front page of the Wednesday New York Times--of having taken a retainer from Freddie Mac in the amount of $15,000 a month for over four years, right up to the very moment that the federal government seized control of the institution. Well after the McCain campaign had started running ads accusing Senator Obama of being in cahoots with that very same institution.
And then, a little after noon on Wednesday, the campaign could find itself signing at the front door for a small package from CBS, containing an advance copy of the final version of Katie Couric's two-part interview of Sarah Palin. The highlight of the first segment? Well, it could be that Governor Palin was unable to cite examples of McCain's track-record on encouraging government oversight. ("Yes, Katie, but he's also known as the maverick, takin' shots from his own party, and the other party, tryin' to get people to see what he's tryin' to accomplish.") The highlight of the second segment? How about Palin's inability to explain why Alaska's proximity to Russia qualifies her for foreign policy leadership. ("Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and on our other side, the land-- boundary that we have with-- Canada. It-- it's funny that a comment like that was-- kind of made to-- cari-- I don't know, you know? Reporters.")
We all know what happened next.
In total exasperation, the McCain team pulled the grandaddy of all electoral stunts: what has increasingly been described even in mainstream media outlets as a "call for a time-out"--hoping that the drama of a campaign suspension would wipe all of these other stories off the media map, and maybe even scuttle a debate at which McCain would otherwise have little chance of escaping a discussion of his role in repealing the Glass/Steagal Act. And never mind the fact that the McCain team didn't actually suspend anything (its television ads have continued to run in full force, everywhere), or that his presence in Washington was understood to be useless by all but the most politically un-astute respondents in a hasty Survey-USA poll that found only 10% support for his actions.
It may well have been the biggest election gamble in modern history, and it hasn't worked. In an uncharacteristic fury, Dave Letterman invested over ten minutes of his Wednesday night program to assail the decision and its architect--including a cutaway that showed Mr. McCain not jetting-off to Washington, but rather being prepped by a makeup artist for an interview across town with the same Katie Couric who'd been planning to highlight her frightful encounter with the Senator's running-mate.
Then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour went public with a call that the debate go forward as planned--together with all the major newspapers in the state. Meanwhile, when Mr. McCain finally arrived in Washington (over twenty-four hours after his suspension announcement), his appearance seemed to scuttle, rather than facilitate, a fragile consensus on the final language in the bill. Individuals loyal to McCain have spun this story in a variety of ways, but history will know better: McCain yesterday was the champion of nothing, the maverick standing up to nobody. Indeed he was considerably the more reckless and opportunistic of the two major candidates for President.
All of which leaves McCain with only today to salvage the situation. At the moment he is claiming (with a straight face) that the broad outlines of a compromise are in place (just as they were before he arrived), and that he may now therefore adjourn to Oxford. This is not an argument the public is likely to buy unless truly newsworthy progress on the bill ends up being made in the hours remaining for Friday business.
By taking this particular gamble, Mr. McCain has broken over his knee the first cardinal rule of gambling: always minimize your losses on the losing hands.
Instead, having been dealt a flop that consists of a two of clubs and a spoonful of ant poison, Mr. McCain has decided to bluff--by swallowing the ant poison right there at the table, and then betting the farm on the two of clubs. And none of the other players have anything to gain by folding: The general public doesn't want a Friday compromise on the bailout. The Republicans in the House of Representatives don't want a Friday compromise on the bailout. The Republicans in the Senate, who were for the compromise before Mr. McCain showed up to fan the partisan flames surrounding the issue, no longer want a Friday compromise on the bailout. Only Mssrs. McCain, Paulson, and Bush are still of the opinion that the sun will not rise tomorrow if this deal isn't done by the time Mr. Obama takes the stage in Oxford. And I know I've said it before, but my friends, that's just not the company Mr. McCain needs to be keeping at the moment.
My personal take is that a compromise bill that would give Mr. McCain enough cover to come to Mississippi as conquering hero is vanishingly unlikely, but beyond that relatively safe bet I haven't a clue what will actually happen instead. The GOP ticket can afford neither to show with its tail between its legs and no compromise on the bill, nor to allow Mr. Obama to have the initiative that would attach to yet another reversal. There can be little hope that Mr. McCain could conjure yet another "shakeup" of this election on such short notice, or that this as-yet hypothetical new shakeup would have any traction at all with an increasingly shakeup-fatigued electorate.
If there's a fourth option I haven't considered, then McCain supporters had better hope that he and Steve Schmidt are smarter than I am about what that option might be--and, more importantly, that they get started availing themselves of it, immediately.
("The Key Grip")
Friday, September 26, 2008