Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Was This The Inflection Point?

At the start of Tuesday night's Presidential debate there was broad consensus that John McCain needed to score a decisive victory; instead, by every available measuring standard (thank you,, the clear victor in the event was Barack Obama. And the worst news of it for McCain is that the polling results probably don't even plumb the depths of the real story.

Mr. McCain, eager to show himself as the young and energetic campaigner that he manifestly is not, took the decision to stroll expansively across the stage as he spoke--a gesture that only managed to make him look predatory, frustrated, and, dare I say it? erratic. Neither his physique nor his temperament were suited to this Clintonesque approach of connecting with the Town Hall audience, a self-evident truth that only serves to buttress the emerging picture of a campaign trying to win on a one-size-fits-all metric of old formulas ill-suited to their guy.

It's been said before in these columns, but it bears repeating: Mr. McCain is squandering every aspect of his own personal brand, by pandering to the time-tested methods being espoused by the people who are supposed to be helping him. He isn't retail (despite promising earmarks at every stop, just before he rails against them), he isn't dirty (despite running ads that claim his opponent wants to teach sex-ed in kindergarten), he isn't Clintonesque (despite trying to be on Tuesday night), and he certainly isn't a champion of government oversight (which would play with the American public if there wasn't such a huge archive of counter-examples reposing in film canisters like so many unexploded Vietnamese land-mines).

This, more than any other macro-level reason, is why McCain was struggling to define himself and his opponent even before the Wall Street meltdown--and indeed probably would have lost, anyway. He's not the guy Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt have been trying to make out of him, and the harder he tries to be that guy, ironically, the more he comes across as a clone of George W. Bush. It's undoubtedly too late now, but the only true "shakeup" that would have actually challenged the structural dynamic of this race would have been to fire both of those idiots (presumably on the day Rick Davis was linked financially to FreddieMac), and replace them with people who knew and trusted McCain's own distinct appeal. And by the way, even then it may have been too late, at least if we are to believe a recent story suggesting that the Sarah Palin pick was the sole responsibility of Mr. Schmidt.

Hypotheticals aside, Tuesday night was McCain's de facto last chance to move the electorate in any meaningful way. True, the campaign has switched to fiercely negative tactics, both on the airwaves and the stump, but these represent a nearly-mute testimony to the compounded tactical missteps of their architects, since the new attacks are in violation of the first cardinal rule of the Lee Atwater playbook: You're supposed to question character first (anyone for a tank-ride?), then move in for the kill on policy (anyone for furloughing Willie Horton?). If you do it the other way around it looks as though you've given up trying to win on policy, and are now desperately trying to change the subject. Apparently someone forgot to tell the once-removed disciple of Atwater running Team Crankypants. And never mind that The Good Guys are responding far more effectively than any Democrat in memory. At all events, when you're down by eleven in one prominent tracking poll and eight in another, Bill Ayers isn't going to be your Willie Horton. You have to win it back yourself.

Too bad for Mr. McCain, then, that he chose the route of chippy, borderline exasperated responses to a host of questions, thrust from his lips in the manner of a suspect trying to lie his way past the police. By turns McCain linked himself to yet another questionably competent female CEO (Meg Whitman), floated a bevy of bizarre and palpably un-funny jokes (not you, Tom), quietly conceded that he would, in fact, tax health care benefits (by not swatting the accusation down in its tracks), and, in the end, committed what may be the most readily sound-bitable gaffe since Gerry Ford told a national audience that the Russians weren't running eastern Europe. The next morning, all the talk on all the major news sites was about his "that one" comment--which could have been racist, could have been merely derisive, but at all events may be the single least Presidential act by a candidate for President that this country has ever seen happening on live television.

The kids over on Fivethirtyeight had the luxury of watching the opinion dials throughout the evening, and McCain's rarely tripped above 50%, while Obama's rarely dipped below it. As one last barometer on just how bad the night went for Mr. McCain and his ticket, consider that the CNN "debate report card," which summarizes the reactions of their panel of political analysts, featured only one grade for Mr. McCain above a "C" (David Gergen's), despite the fact that one of the other panelists happens to be the unapologetically disingenuous Linda Sanchez--the same Linda Sanchez who had the gall to award Barack Obama a "C" for the speech that Pat Buchanan called the greatest he had ever seen.

With all of this data rushing in, and all of it pointing so squarely toward the same conclusion, one is left to wonder if the "fundamentals are strong" comment from three weeks ago was the pivot-point in this election, and if now what we've just witnessed is its corresponding inflection point--the moment at which undecideds begin breaking for Obama at self-amplifying rates, to spare the hold-outs from the potential embarrassment of sounding tone-deaf to the clarity of the situation. As for signs that this is indeed what has just happened? Look over the next few days for a bevy of Republican candidates down-ticket to begin attaching themselves to Barack Obama, in much the same way that Democrats did in 1980 and Republicans did in 1992. Few sentinels could be as conclusive as finding someone in a grocery store wearing a button that said, for example, "I'm voting for Obama and Libby Dole!" because such a button would signal that the embattled down-ticket candidates are fleeing from the vortex of McCain's sunken ship.

Look also for the tone of reporting in the mainstream press to become less and less favorable for a McCain comeback, as the editorial boards of the largest news sources shift from artificially holding things close in order to fan their ratings, to a fear of seeming out-of-touch with the reality on the ground. From here on, each new ploy by Old-Man POW and his reckless sidekick will surely be prefaced by the same lead-in about their "increasingly desperate" need to change things up--and the more the press takes this tone, the harder it will be for a persuadable voter to side with them, for fear of backing a loser.

Even late-campaign surprises in the area of current events would seem unlikely to move the matter far enough to change the outcome, now. The capture of Bin Laden will not lift the approval ratings of a President now rivaling the lows of Nixon on the day he resigned from office--at least not past the point that he continues to drag-down his aspiring successor--and a massive change in the national security fortunes of the country would only have helped McCain had he not already appeared erratic and volatile for the entire world to see. For all the Republicans' protestations, it is now Obama who has emerged as the "cool hand at the tiller," and that is as close to the death-knell for McCain's candidacy as a reasonably cautious analyst is likely to sound, between now and November 4th.

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


A. Gordon said...

I don't know if McCain ever wanted this. I think he wanted to be president but I don't believe that he ever wanted to have to sacrifice who he was in order to get it. His problem is/was that he could never have won over the Republican base by himself as a "maverick." Additionally, if he didn't pander to the right, he might have never made it out of the primaries.

Picking Palin would normally have allowed him to go back to his roots - why so many people used to like him (remember when he was on the Daily Show) but he never went back and you don't get to pick your running mate before you've won the primaries.

Thus, he's had to become someone he's not and I think it eats him up inside. But, he's already crossed the Rubicon and there's no going back.

RIP McCain.

Dave O'Gorman said...

I agree with the last sentiment. Obama grew up playing basketball, he knows how to dribble-out a clock.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple of questions for y'all. Do you know what McCain's health care plan entails, and did he just suddenly switch it? The OB literature seems to say that the $5000 goes straight to the insurance companies, but last night he was saying that it is a tax credit. I don't know why Obama didn't point out that to those who are too poor, a tax CREDIT is worthless. Did McCain say that he was proposed giving an additional child deduction, thus making it even more moot?
The other question is: what is McCain's (and OB for that matter) proposed fix on Social Security--and to the economists among you, what are the ramifications of removing this huge amount of money from the treasury; supposing McCain's solution is to "privatize" it like Bush suggested.

A. Gordon said...

Straight from the horse's mouth (well, his website):

While still having the option of employer-based coverage, every family will receive a direct refundable tax credit - effectively cash - of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance. Families will be able to choose the insurance provider that suits them best and the money would be sent directly to the insurance provider.

---- end of McCain statement ---

Additionally, as you may have heard, McCain plans on paying for this tax credit by taxing employee health benefits as income. E.g., if you receive health insurance from your employer and the total cost of that coverage for you is say $400/month and you pay $50/paycheck (assume you get paid bi-monthly) then you would have to pay normal income tax on $300 ($400 - (2 * $50)).

Now, I have no idea what employer sponsored health coverage costs, but know that if you have a spouse, or children, undoubtedly that $400 goes WAY up. What does all this mean? Ultimately, your paycheck will go down. What I don't know is whether or not the $50 you still pay will still count as a pre-tax deduction from your paycheck.

I don't know if he suddenly switched it, so if he did, I never heard his previous plan. So, the $5K does go to the insurance companies, but if there's extra, it can go into an HSA according to McCain's website. One thing to consider: if you're single, $5K is plenty, you'll be fine. If you're married, it depends. If you're married and have kids, The statistics I've seen is that the $5K is a joke as typical families pay in excess of $12K/year for medical related expenses.

You are correct in your statement about a tax credit. Typically, tax credits have strings attached to them such that you must make over a certain amount in order to claim them. I think they're all different, though, so I don't know if there's a minimum qualifying income for this credit.

Regarding social security, Obama's solution is very simple: raise the income cap on social security taxes. In 2008, if you make <= $102K/year (not self-employed) 6.2% is deducted from your paycheck (your employer pays the other 6.2%). If you are self-employed, normally you have to pay the full 12.4% yourself.

If you're a teacher making $30K/year, you pay the full 6.2% ($1860). If you're a cop making $60K/year, you pay the full 6.2% ($3720). But, if you're a CEO making $4M/year, you only pay 6.2% of your first $102K in income, or $6320. Obama, and rightly so, wants to lift that income cap which would actually do WONDERS for shoring up the SS system. I don't know what the actual figures are, though. Consider this: Jack Welsh, former CEO of GE, receives his social security check which is probably around $2000/month. His pension from GE pays him $700,000/month. Does he REALLY need to collect social security? You could argue that since he put money in, he should be able to take money out...but come on....

McCain's published plan is pretty vague which leads me to believe he can't campaign on it or he'd get crushed even more - I can't even find it on his website. According to CNN, he supports some degree of privatization, or individual investment accounts - which ironically would be tanking with the economy, whereas social security wouldn't be impacted nearly as much (save for lost wages due to unemployment). His argument is that it shouldn't be a government program because Republicans supposedly believe in less government.

As far as ramifications go, I can't say, but I do know we've been borrowing from the social security pot to pay for non social security items. And that money has to be paid back.

I realize that's a lot to digest. Perhaps Dave can weigh in on some of the stuff as well.

Dave O'Gorman said...

The best way to cut through all the clutter of the two candidates' health-care plans is to go to a website hosted by the Kaiser Foundation, which compares them in a non-partisan environment.

All you have to do is select the various check-boxes that will eventually lead you to a full, side-by-side comparison of the two campaigns' entire plans (which takes more than one step, but it's worth it).