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The Markets Brought Down McCain

A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Oct. 16-19 among 2,599 registered voters interviewed on landline phones and cell phones, includes news that is across-the-board discouraging for McCain supporters.

According to the Pew data, Senator Obama enjoys his widest margin yet over McCain among registered voters (52% v. 38%). When the sample of voters is narrowed to those most likely to vote, Obama leads by 53% to 39%.

While this poll has Senator McCain down by 14 points, which is on the high end of all the polls taken, the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has Obama ahead by 10. The RealClearPolitics (RCP) average today is 7.4 percent.

It is hard to believe that about a month ago, Senator McCain was slightly ahead of Senator Obama if you aggregated all the polls, and there were stories of Republicans limiting the damage in both the House and the Senate. The wind seemed to be at the back of the GOP for the first time in many months. Liberals were beginning to get a bit panicky, worried that they would find a way to lose the presidential race.

What on earth has happened?

While it will take weeks for experts to pore over and interpret the data after the election, the answer, I think, is fairly straightforward: the financial crisis that hit in late September created panic among investors, the Dow cratered, credit froze, the economy lurched into a recession, casting aside all other issues, and voters became genuinely fearful. This combination created a political avalanche, and John McCain and his fellow Republicans have been caught in its path.

Senator McCain, understanding what was happening, made several efforts to get out of the way. At first he tried to be reassuring. That didn’t work. He then tried to appear bipartisan in his criticisms, blaming SEC chairman Christopher Cox for what had happened and suggesting Andrew Cuomo as a possible replacement. That didn’t work. He suspended his campaign to try to engineer a rescue package and said he would forgo the first debate if one wasn’t agreed to. That didn’t work. Senator McCain then announced an ambitious proposal, but did so in the midst of a debate in which no advance work was done and no roll-out was put in place. That didn’t work.

Senator McCain, desperate to do something to change the trajectory of the race, ended up acting in ways that deepened the public’s doubts about him. And Senator Obama, while contributing absolutely nothing to the policy debate and constantly invoking Warren Buffett’s support, looked smooth and unflappable in the process. The three debates also helped Obama enormously; the public judged him the victor in each one. And so we are where we are.

The truth is that even if Senator McCain had done everything right in the aftermath of the financial/credit crisis — and in a campaign, you almost never do everything right — it triggered a torrent of unhappiness which has, for reasons that I think are largely unfair, been directed almost exclusively at Republicans. All the gains that McCain and Republicans had made up through mid-September were more than washed away; it put them further behind than ever.

The financial meltdown that has hit this country has been the worst in more than three-quarters of a century. I actually think that when the history of these times are written, it will show that the President, Congress, and the other industrialized nations acted quite quickly and, for the most part, wisely, keeping the damage, which is considerable, from being much worse. But that’s not how most folks see it now. And the political effect of this crisis has been as broad and deep and consequential as any event I can recall.

Senator McCain is fighting back and, with an assist from “Joe the Plumber,” he’s using the tax message pretty well right now. He needs to continue to focus his message and do what he can, policy-wise, to increase doubts about Senator Obama. But McCain has been placed in a very difficult situation. His path to victory was always uphill; what has happened in the last month is that the climbing incline went, in almost the blink of an eye, from challenging to severe and almost unscalable.

As pre-criminations are beginning to increase by the day and as commentators (including conservative commentators) begin to ascribe blame for where McCain and the GOP find themselves, it’s worth considering that sometimes events happen that are unfavorable, unfortunate, and that have bad consequences. To then use ideological, political, and personal predispositions to explain away why things are going poorly — McCain is too cranky and negative, Sarah Palin is a fool, their campaign is a joke, conservatism and capitalism are dying, the nation has become enchanted with liberalism, and so forth — is unfair and unwise. And people, including those advocating more grace and high-mindedness in our politics, who begin to unsheath their knives and stick them into the most convenient target look rather petty.
Between now and the first Tuesday in November, conservatives and Republicans should continue to press their case and fight for their cause. Races can still change, margins can narrow, and a lot hangs in the balance. And McCain does have a scenario — if a very unlikely one — for victory, resting on him carrying Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and an upset in Pennsylvania.
But if the current polls hold and Republicans suffer badly on November 4, an intellectually and politically serious re-evaluation should occur. I hope it does; and I hope it’s done in a manner that is calm and reasonable — rather than emotional and bitter. Based on how things look at this point, that hope may be a fanciful one.


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