John McCain’s strategy before yesterday’s second presidential debate in Nashville could be described in three words: stop the bleeding. Trailing in national polls and battleground states, and a distant second choice among voters increasingly worried about the economy, McCain had to accomplish two things. First, he had to reassure voters that he would be a better steward of the economy. Second, he had to spoil the aura of inevitability that is increasingly attached to the Obama campaign. Both were daunting tasks and, in the end, both were beyond McCain’s reach.
On the economy, McCain’s best opportunity came in the first part of the debate. Here was a chance for McCain to improve on his forgettable performance in the first debate, when he largely echoed his opponent in railing against “greed” on Wall Street while offering little in the way of a substantive policy vision. This time McCain did offer a policy. Unfortunately, the policy that McCain proposed – a dubious $300-billion program for the federal government to buy up bad home mortgages, this on top of the more than $700 billion dollars that Congress has already allocated for the financial bailout package – made one nostalgic for his previous approach.
Among other things, McCain’s promise of an expensive new bailout seriously undermined his only other proposal for reversing the financial downturn, namely his pledge to restore fiscal discipline by reigning in wasteful “earmark” spending by the federal government. As a remedy for the ailing economy, that too is problematic. A laudable goal in and of itself, cutting spending would have little impact on the current crisis, a point Obama made effectively when he observed that earmarks account for about $18 billion of the budget – nothing to scoff at, to be sure, but hardly a compelling answer to a credit crunch that has now gone global.
Obama’s performance was hardly better here. His much-repeated charge that the “biggest problem in this whole process was the deregulation of the financial system” is patently untrue. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison has observed, “the financial sector has seen increased regulation since the savings and loan collapse in the 1980s.” And none other than that Republican stalwart, Bill Clinton, has rejected Obama’s suggestion that the deregulation of the banking industry is responsible for the current crisis. But McCain declined to challenge the point and Obama, with his secure advantage on the economy – a recent NBC poll found that Obama had a commanding 15-point lead among the 60 percent of respondents who named the economy as their main concern – won the exchange simply by not losing.
Obama further helped his case by appearing the more knowledgeable of the two candidates – even when he was not. One telling moment came when a questioner asked the candidates to explain just how the recent bailout package would work. McCain replied with what may charitably be described as a muddle of clichés and stump-speech snipes at mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fanny May and Obama. Never did he actually answer the question. For his part, Obama cogently explained just how the bailout would help businesses meet their payroll obligations. One need not have agreed with Obama’s misleading suggestion, repeated yet again, that excess deregulation is behind Wall Street’s woes, to see that his was the far superior response.
So it went for much of the night. For instance, when asked about the environment, McCain gave a strong defense of nuclear power, pointing out that it was a clean source of energy that would create jobs and reduce dependency on foreign oil. By contrast, Obama presented a rousing mini-lecture on a “new energy economy,” one that would have “nuclear power as one component” but which would make substantial investments in “solar, wind, geothermal” power. As the journalist William Tucker has noted, supporting these “alternative” sources over nuclear power is the inverse of a sound energy strategy. In contrast to nuclear power, “[w]indmills and solar collectors remain a very bad investment for one reason -- they produce very little useful electricity.” Obama’s was seemingly the more thoughtful answer; McCain’s merely the correct one.
The sense that McCain was overmatched in the debate was nowhere more apparent than when he tried to maneuver to Obama’s Left on foreign policy by accusing the senator of seeking to “attack Pakistan.” Of all the ways to raise questions about Obama’s judgment on foreign affairs – and there are many – this is surely the least compelling. In the first place, most Americans would probably regard Obama’s original statement, in which he promised to launch strikes against al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan if “we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act,” as unobjectionable. In any case, the U.S. military has already adopted the strategy. This September, to the great displeasure of the Pakistani government, a missile strike by an unmanned U.S. aerial vehicle killed six suspected jihadists in South Waziristan. McCain almost certainly would approve of such counter-terror missions and his strained attempt to make the Pakistan quote an issue must be seen as the act of a desperate man.
Which, of course, he is. In no small part this is due to circumstances beyond his control. In an electoral year unfavorable to Republicans and amid an economic meltdown that has bolstered the Democratic candidate, McCain has run a surprisingly competitive campaign. That the national-security issues (Iraq, terrorism) on which McCain enjoys the edge are no longer a top concern for voters merely confirms the iron rule that, in politics, timing is everything.
Not all is lost for McCain. Polls show that nearly twenty percent of voters have not yet made up made their minds about a candidate, and can be considered “movable” as the election heads towards its finale. But given the combination of Obama’s much-improved performance in the second debate and a bevy of polls favoring the Democratic nominee, the McCain campaign must be dreading which way they will move.