Saturday, October 11, 2008

One Avenue Left For McCain

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AUTHOR'S NOTE: The next column of Cinema Democratica will be uploaded on or about Monday morning.

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A person wouldn't be a regular reader of these columns and not also know, independently, that the poll data has completely come apart in the past ten to twenty days for the team of Lost 'Nam / Lose Iran, both in terms of the national trackers and the electoral vote whip-count. These very columns have been making the case in different forms for most of that time, and each day that the economy holds center stage seems almost automatically to be a terrific polling day for Barack Obama and a terrible day for John McCain.

The situation has gotten so bad that the media analysis has pivoted far more dramatically than the race itself, for fear of seeming behind-the-wave. After weeks of cherry-picking tight polling data to fan their ratings, the mainstream pundits--including some high-ranking republicans--are now suggesting out-loud in televised panel discussions that the race is already over. "John McCain has the chance," muttered infamous GOP operative Ed Rollins on CNN the other day, "to go down in history as the man who cost the Republican party ten senate seats in the 2008 election." ...A thought that garnered an audible and involuntary "wow" from the guy sitting right next to him, David Gergen.

There are plenty of good reasons to suspect that Mr. Rollins might be right. Despite having the thick-end of a month to work out a position on the matter, Team Red has yet to formulate anything to say about the looming economic plane-crash in our midst that isn't self-contradictory, hopelessly at variance with conservative principles, insufferably quotidian, or some combination of all three. Over the past three news cycles, CNN has run a story suggesting that rank-and-file Republicans are once again ready to abandon McCain over his pledge to transfer shoddy mortgages from private balance sheets to the public one, followed abruptly by a story in which Mr. McCain pledged to amend the tax-penalty clauses for cashing-out a 401k (nice to know that the 63% of our money that's left in there won't be taxed when we try to use it to keep from being foreclosed, huh?), followed abruptly by a story that featured Rick Davis, in the daily campaign conference call, ascribing the CREDIT to McCain for sabotaging the first draft of the bailout bill--despite the fact that McCain had "suspended his campaign" on a pledge to ensure its passage.

As the mood of the electorate turns dramatically toward Mr. Obama on the question of trust and confidence, the McCain campaign has responded by attempting to fan the flames of the Bill Ayers / Barack Obama connection--and even this has backfired. To begin with there is the surreal picture of Sarah Palin, chief attack-dog on the subject, standing before a microphone and telling us that we don't know who "the real Barack Obama" is, despite the fact that he has been campaigning for President for twenty months, and she has been a public figure for fewer than six weeks of that time. As has been noted previously in these columns, you can't attack your opponent on character after he's already passed the "living-room test," especially if the person doing the attacking, hasn't. Still this least-worst strategy hobbles on, at Palin rally after Palin rally, where scores of audience members can be seen standing with folded arms through the attacks, but whose evening newscast sound-bites are driving a thicker and thicker wedge between the ticket and its precious on-the-fence voters on the other end of the TV signal. If that was where the problem ended, it would be bad enough.

But the other thing that's been happening on the trail since McCain/Palin decided to "take the gloves off" is that those crowds of theirs, when doing something other than standing with folded-arms, have been scaring the hell out of the rest of the country. As has been widely documented, right-wing firebrands in the audiences of McCain/Palin campaign rallies have taken to calling for the literal murder of Barack Obama--a behavior at least serious enough to merit an investigation by none other than the US Secret Service, albeit a cursory one.

Even on this score, the campaign has delivered the very sort of uncoordinated, uneven response that earned Mr. McCain the "erratic" label in the first place, starting by trying to sell the self-evidently ridiculous notion that Mr. Obama himself is responsible, following that with silence, and eventually, one might even say reluctantly, with McCain himself taking the stage and calling upon audience members to recognize that Mr. Obama is an honorable man against whom they are allowed to stand opposed on principle but not to incite violence--a call which earned the Republican candidate a full-throated round of booing from his own supporters. None of this is helping Mr. McCain to close his deal with undecided voters, of this much you may rest assured.

Meanwhile, the attack-dog herself is perhaps not enjoying the national political limelight as much as she may have a few weeks ago up in Minneapolis. The biggest story with her name on it these days isn't about her relentless linking of Obama to Ayers; it's about her relentless and possibly illegal abuse of power as Governor, in trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the Alaska State Police. In case you missed it, the bipartisan report into the matter--commissioned by the Republican-controlled state legislature--found conclusively that the Governor misused her office, though the document itself was quietly pooted-out on Friday night when none of the major media sources were going to take (or receive) much notice. But this may not be enough to keep the contents of that report from stealing the Sunday-morning news talks, and in consequence possibly spilling over into Monday or perhaps even beyond.

This isn't even the only round of incoming for the embattled pit-bull, either: A separate investigation into those paltry two years' of recently-released income tax returns has revealed that the Palins may owe thousands of dollars in back taxes, for failing to report the per diem payments they received while they were at their home in Wasilla. This author takes a lot of pleasure in criticizing the recently de-fanged media, but if Palin's abuse of power comes up in Sunday-morning conversation, it seems unlikely that her claims to being a reformer will pass without a question or two into how she can make such claims while simultaneously cheating on her income taxes. Messrs Obama and Biden, incidentally, have shrewdly left all of this alone--though one may be equally confident that McCain's decision to name Bill Ayers in a television commercial won't pass completely un-retaliated.

With the highest-placed Republicans now falling apart on policy and on strategy, it can come as little surprise that their electoral fortunes are also... well... falling apart. Mr. Obama is at or near his highest numbers ever in tracking poll scores, polling margins, electoral-vote projections, and likelihood of winning the election. A candidate who is down by ten points on the national stage with twenty-five days to go is in very, very big trouble. Even the widely-echoed predictions of some inevitable tightening over the last few days of the race would seem to this author to be on questionable footing--at least if one were to base his entire predictions on the tracking poll graph of the 1996 election between Clinton and Dole, which didn't tighten one tiny little bit over the same time-frame.

Neither is Mr. Rollins' prediction of ugly consequences down the ticket unsupported by the polling analysis of his most trusted colleagues. Mitch McConnell and Saxby Chambliss both appear to be in substantial trouble--something that wouldn't have been thought possible even on the day that John McCain was standing on a stage in Jacksonville and pronouncing our economy strong. Elizabeth Dole is being quietly regarded as a dead woman walking in North Carolina, where a popular Democratic candidate for Governor, together with a significant banking sector, are collaborating to drag the usually untouchable Republican brand down into one of the least-likely battlegrounds of the cycle. Noted Congressional whip-counter Stu Rothenberg--a former Republican speechwriter--has gone so far as to call his current projection of the November 4th results a bloodbath.

In Minnesota a last, desperate grasp to right the rapidly sinking fortunes of Republican Senator Norm Coleman--a man who seems to think that the best thing about poor people is that they make really good firewood--has manifested itself as a unilateral cessation of negative campaigning, presumably in the hopes that Mr. Franken's blossoming lead will be damaged whether he alienates persuadable voters by refusing to respond in kind, or weakens his own arguments by agreeing to do so. It's a tried-and-tested approach, often pulled out at the last minute by a trailing Republican, and it's not going to work this time, either. Franken will re-broadcast Coleman's earlier, chillingly venomous commercials, tagging each one with a stoic voice-over asking, "Who does he think he's trying to kid?" And that, friend and neighbors, will be the Minnesota Senate Seat (and with a little luck, the political obituary of Mr. Coleman into the bargain).

So what is left to Mr. McCain and his ilk, by way of salvaging the situation? Many loyal readers would undoubtedly predict electoral theft--and indeed there is some evidence to support this concern. Even as the rest of the country basks in the first rays of morning sunshine that would seem to be draining us of our eight-year national nightmare, the Republican administrations in several states are quietly carrying out yet another purge, with the same ominous predictions of legally-registered Democrats being forcibly and systematically disenfranchised. The difference is, this time it won't be enough: You can steal Florida when the other guy is winning it by 1.5%, but you can't steal Ohio when the other guy is winning it by 5%--especially when the other guy's party controls the state government.

No, what is left to Mr. McCain, and his ilk, is to destroy the Obama Presidency before it even begins--first by polarizing the country by continuing to fan the "kill him" sentiment on the trail, and then by hamstringing the eventual administration with a national situation so hopeless that none of his proposed initiatives are still on the table. "This country is going to vote for Democrats for precisely as long as it takes to clean up the mess," one learned friend of mine recently predicted, "and then they'll go right back to voting for the people who made it in the first place, again." I hate to say it, but he may have a point.

The Federal Reserve has proven in the past--notably with the first days of the Clinton Administration--that its supposed non-partisan mission to stabilize monetary policy can sound to an un-trained observer like a check on the Democratic agenda--a phenomenon that Robert Reich once famously referred to as "the vice": If he and Clinton tried to stimulate the economy, Mr. Greenspan informed them on the occasion of their first three-way meeting, Greenspan would simply nullify their action with higher interest rates. If this isn't a reason to look fatalistically on the sweepingly ambitious proposals coming from the Obama campaign, then it is at the very least a compelling reason to short the bond market.

But the likelihood of such a move by Ben Bernanke says nothing about the separate, openly partisan efforts of McCain/Palin to agitate the right flank of their party into a "kill him" frenzy. And on this score we come back to Rollins and his comments about the McCain "legacy." If indeed Mr. McCain has already quietly conceded his chances of becoming the next President--or even if he sees them as increasingly slim--it is plausible to imagine that he may already be thinking about how he will be regarded by history. If true, this hypothesis would go a long way toward explaining how McCain could have retreated so dramatically from the (mostly) noble plane on which he'd pledged to run his race at its inception: By galvanizing the crazies on the far right, to such an extent that they would stop at nothing to thwart an Obama Administration even on those issues where their own best interests might be served, McCain could be playing to limit the losses down the ticket, and by that measure look to history like less of a loser than he might otherwise.

...Of course, if the right-flank of Mr. McCain's party really wanted to make Mr. Obama's agenda impossible to consummate, then their current leader could effect this outcome far more easily than all of these complex narratives involving shady Bill Ayers / Tony Rezko / Barack Obama connections--by instead just blowing-up Tehran. But that's a different column, now, isn't it.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

4 comments:

Calvin and Hobbes said...

The thing that strikes me the most, and wasn't touched on, at least by CNN last evening w/r/t McCain having to actually, albeit half-heartedly, defend Obama was that the McCain/Palin camp created this mess with which they're now having to deal.

You fill a room with people who agree with you and instead of talking about how you're going to fix the economy, you blast your opponent for everything he's done in his entire life and then you stand there incredulous when a 85-year old lady stands up and says "I don't trust Obama because he's an Arab."

They made their bed - now they have to lie in it. What pisses me off though is that at any public rally, if the speaker riled up the crowd enough, he/she could be cited for inciting violence, riots, etc... but apparently political campaigns are exempt from that law. Or apparently shouts of "Kill him!," "Traitor!," and "Terrorist!" don't count.

The Key Grip said...

Of course the Obama people are in a tight spot on this subject -- if they call too much attention to it, they cede their advantage in talking about policy, but if they call too little attention to it they run the risk of looking weak. If this were a tied race (or a race that didn't afford so many structural advantages to Team Blue) I'd be more worried. But as things stand, I think our guy is gonna win going away.

By the way, Calvin, you get the bonus prize for wading through this entire column on your Saturday afternoon. :-)

Calvin and Hobbes said...

It's become one of the staples I read every morning and I'm not hesitant to say I'm disappointed when I check and there's not a new article.

Besides, while I'm a political junkie all on my own, my wife works in it for a living, so it goes with the territory.

The Key Grip said...

That's a hell of a compliment -- I hope I can continue to live up to it (and that you'll let me know when I don't)!