Tuesday, October 14, 2008

So What, Exactly, HAPPENED Yesterday?

Every once in a while I have the pleasure of reporting on a story that may not just be thinly-disguised common knowledge, and the events of Monday, October 13th offer just such an occasion. They were pleasing to behold, indeed.

It all started early Saturday morning, when the McCain/Palin campaign announced that the man at the top of their ticket would be delivering a "major policy address, laying out the details of a new economic plan" during a previously scheduled stop in southeastern Virginia, yesterday. The announcement struck few armchair analysts like myself as a surprise--seeing as how Republican opinion leaders had been publicly fretting for weeks that Team Crankypants was fumbling away its slim remaining chances by focusing on the Bill Ayers nonsense (which, in case you missed it, was finally and conclusively debunked by a nonpartisan fact-checking organization over the weekend, anyway). At all events, while Barack Obama has been stoically and methodically consolidating his claim as the bearer of sounder judgment and steadier hand, Team Red has seen fit to live up to Obama's principal charge against them, by behaving more and more erratically, with a less and less defined message.

The task of getting McCain/Palin back on track was ostensibly to begin with major Republican columnists around the country priming the mainstream media for a "reboot" narrative, in which McCain/Palin would essentially start campaigning anew. There would be a focused message oriented around their plans for the imploding economy, these columnists were hinting, and that new message was hinted to contain many new initiatives to which Mr. Obama, for once, would have to respond. Then, at McCain's Monday stop in Virginia, he would lift the curtain on this new message, and the entire dynamic of the final three weeks of the campaign would be carried out at Mr. McCain's initiative instead of Mr. Obama's.

Certainly if Republican Presidential fortunes were to turn in this election, the moment was now: Recent news stories had shown that Mr. Obama is leading conclusively among Latinos--a bloc without which McCain could expect to lose badly in the crucial battlegrounds of the inter-mountain west, and a separate report published on Monday showed that Obama is also enjoying a lead (albeit a fragile one) in, of all places, North Dakota. The current electoral-vote map as assembled from the projections on fivethirtyeight.com, not counting leaner states, shows Mr. Obama leading 338-151, with recent pickups of both Ohio and Florida.

Mr. McCain, by contrast, may no longer count on North Dakota, Montana, or the second congressional district of Nebraska--any one of which would have seemed preposterous losses to ponder, as recently as 2004. By any standard with which one cares to view the situation, McCain/Palin is in the final throes of a meltdown that makes the one on Wall Street look vague and indecisive by comparison.

When asked what he'd planned to do to help Mr. McCain hold Florida, Governor Charlie Crist issued a terse reply, saying, "When I have time to help, I'll try to do that." Asked what this means, Governor Crist apparently attempted to spin the "bsuiness of being Governor" into a plausible excuse for having skipped a McCain/Palin rally over the weekend--despite the fact that the freed-up time in question was spent at Disneyworld. Obviously, when the Republican Governor of Florida is running away and hiding from the Republican candidate for President, it's past time for the Presidential candidate to execute the much-vaunted and much-hyped reboot we'd been told to expect on Monday.

There was even a carefully orchestrated press-leak of the full text of Mr. McCain's planned speech--which, to this author's untrained eye, at least, doesn't look like much more than a slightly more concentrated tincture of the messages McCain had been delivering up to that point: The government is already too big, Mr. Obama wants to make it bigger, we can't have a recovery if we're paying higher taxes, blah-blah-blah. It's a message that I wouldn't have expected to work, given the obviously increased role for government that our economy presently demands--but, then again, I wouldn't have expected the Palin speech at the GOP convention to have worked as well as it did, either.

On this score there may well have been cause to worry: even people whose 401k's have lost 30% of their value in ten days, can respond pretty doggone viscerally to the message that the other guy is gonna raise their taxes. It probably wouldn't have worked, but it may well have tightened the race considerably, if for no other reason than for the excuse it would give a lazy mainstream press (to whip the event into some non-existent sea change in the conversation).

Except for one small problem: The speech never got delivered. At about ten o'clock Sunday morning, breathlessly and without explanation, the McCain/Palin ticket informed the press that no such major policy changes would be announced by their candidate at the Virginia speech. When pressed, senior campaign officials (unbelievably) tried to blame their surrogates--for mistakenly reporting existing planks in McCain's economic plan as though they were new. This was most evident with respect to Senator Lindsay Graham's comments on the Sunday-morning news talks, that McCain would reveal in his Monday speech a plan to press for even deeper cuts in the tax rates on capital gains. "We don't know why he said that," replied Mr. McCain’s senior policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, when asked about the disconnect. Then, when the reporter interviewing him tried for a follow-up, Holtz-Eakin interrupted him, saying, “I have no comment on anything [pertaining to economic proposals], to anybody.”

Now, come on. The campaign releases the text of a "major policy speech delivering new policy initiatives on the economy," and then, when the candidate doesn't give the speech, it's the fault of Lindsay Graham? Seriously, what on earth is going on, here?

Fortunately we have the dogged and unsung foot-soldiers of Politico.com, at one end of the pundit pipeline, and Republican opinion leaders like Ed Rollins and fellow Reagan policy advisor Bruce Bartlett, at the other, to shed the necessary and delicious light on the subject. What happens turns out to have been very simple: The highest officers in the McCain/Palin campaign are at this very moment engaged in open warfare--with each other.

The first signs that this was the explanation for the policy-speech-that-wasn't came from the story about the matter that appeared yesterday on Politico.com, where a tense series of weekend meetings was first broken. When asked for further details on what, exactly, had happened in these meetings, the participants refused all comment. When asked to confirm or deny that the meetings had collapsed in rancorous disagreement over what policy solutions McCain should offer, the participants declined to do either one.

And then there was a quote and a column, in rapid succession, from two of Reagan's genius tacticians, suggesting that the in-fighting was real, and that it was sinking McCain's chances. “At this point I don’t think McCain can say anything on the economy that will sound credible,” said Bruce Bartlett, Reagan's one-time Senior Economic Adviser, after which Ed Rollins published a commentary on CNN.com, in which he compared the lack of cohesion in the McCain campaign to that of Hillary Clinton's doomed candidacy earlier this year. "A campaign at war with itself cannot fight its opponent effectively," wrote Mr. Rollins--in what may be an early frontrunner for understatement-of-the-century.

From here the paths to salvation become exceedingly narrow and implausible for McCain. Already the mainstream press has begun experimenting with spinning the campaign's itinerary as a sign of desperation on their part--something the rest of us noticed weeks ago, but which will nonetheless present yet another "filter" through which any new initiatives proposed by McCain must successfully pass, to make a difference. More or less at the same moment, it has separately emerged that there may not be any such thing as the so-called "Bradley Effect," by which an African-American candidate receives an inflated level of hypothetical support in pre-electoral polls, on the basis that people don't want to show their racism to pollsters. (The news story in question suggests that the Bradley in question--a black candidate for Governor of California--was polling ahead of his eventual performance because of poor methodology on the part of the pollsters, and not because people were hiding their preferences.) On top of all of this, the RNC has just announced that it will divert five million dollars of its paltry resources from the Presidential campaign into a series of close Senate contests--though even here the Republican prospects are dim and getting dimmer.

There is of course the third debate--an event at which Mr. McCain has promised to "whoop Obama's you-know-what"--though at this late stage in the election it may well be the lowest-rated and least persuasive of the four, even if McCain makes good on his promise. Which, frankly, seems pretty darned unlikely, to this author. Political analysts don't like to say anything conclusive, if only not to risk looking foolish, but it has seemed increasingly safe for some time now to suppose that, barring a major, out-of-their-hands change of fortunes, the outcome of this election is no longer in doubt.

The question will soon shift away from this altogether, even in the eyes of the mainstream media, and on to the even more complex issue of what, exactly, the next President can do with such a compromised set of options for moving forward. Fortunately for us, it is Mr. Obama who has demonstrated that he is up to such a challenge, and Mr. Obama who is now essentially assured of getting it.

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


A. Gordon said...

Small clarification Dave: the RNC wasn't drawing on it's current pool of cash (somewhere in the neighborhood of $74M), but rather tapping a $5M line of credit to assist in these senate races.

Republicans borrowing money to run campaign advertisements and assist with state campaigns? Now I've seen everything.

Dave O'Gorman said...

Yikes, is that not even worse?