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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Campaign Adrift

Yesterday at Politico, Hillary Clinton's former campaign strategist Mark Penn told us all that Barack Obama has the edge over John McCain on the economy. You hope this wasn't the sort of insight Hillary was paying the big bucks for, since you can turn on CNN and get the same information for free. Breaking news this is not.

In fact, Penn's piece isn't exactly correct, since he argues that it's the stock market and its ripples through the economy that have lifted Obama's poll numbers. But the fact is that McCain's numbers began to fall before Wall Street went all to crap. It was the the downward trajectory of a post-convention bounce for McCain and the slow revelation that Sarah Palin could be outsmarted by a baked potato that began Obama's rise, not the ongoing events of last week and now this week. Worries over the economy haven't hurt, but they're not the cause.

With Reaganomics a burning wreck before us, the party of Reagan loses a lot of its appeal. Penn, an old school corporate suit, doesn't acknowledge this. For him, this is all a reaction to a crisis.

Americans — like voters around the world — have a habit of shifting their support in reaction to a crisis. In 2001, Michael Bloomberg was 20 points behind in New York’s mayoral race, until the Sept. 11 attacks transformed voters’ requirements for the job. New Yorkers needed a crisis manager, not a reformer, and they shifted to Bloomberg virtually overnight.

Over the years, I have seen other such crises have a big impact. President Bill Clinton’s strong and empathetic response to the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 lifted his presidency from its doldrums after the 1994 Republican congressional sweep. His reaction to the bombing was a building block toward his easy 1996 reelection. And Sept. 11 transformed the Bush administration into a national security presidency, a key part of his 2004 reelection.

The problem with Penn's analysis -- beside the little timing problem I brought up earlier -- is that Obama's poll numbers aren't limited to the economy. As pollster Rasmussen reported yesterday, Obama not only leads on the economy, but on everything.

While the results for the first presidential debate Friday were mixed, voters in surveys this weekend gave a boost in trust to Barack Obama over John McCain on a cross-section of issues.

Obama is now trusted more on all 10 major issues in new Rasmussen Reports national telephone surveys Saturday and Sunday nights. He even has a statistically insignificant one-point lead over McCain in trust on the handling of the war in Iraq. Just two weeks ago, the Republican had an eight-point lead on this issue.

The proper response by the McCain camp to these numbers would probably involve a lot of swearing; maybe some drinking and crying. You could argue a stock dive (yesterday's second dive doesn't figure into Rasmussen's numbers) boosts Obama because he's not a Republican, but how can that explain a lead on the environment (54%-37%), education (53%-36%), and immigration (43%-40%)? How does it explain Obama's lead on the issue of abortion (47%-42%)? The fact is -- and the numbers back it up -- that the reasons for Obama's rise are much broader than just worries about the economy. He's simply coming across as the most capable and competent candidate.

I've written more than once about Obama's unshakeable calm. Contrast that with McCain's campaign since the conventions -- he's been all over the map, a drama queen who pumps up every little thing into a huge national crisis. Remember "lipstick on a pig?" If you believed McCain, you'd believe it was the worst thing that had ever happened in the history of the human race. When the markets went south, it was a big freakin' emergency and everyone had to drop everything and freak out. And they had to do it nownownow!

Meanwhile, Obama was a rock by comparison. McCain's message of "Don't panic, I'll save you!" wasn't all that comforting, since it suggested that there was reason to panic and that you were in deep trouble. McCain's stunt of "suspending" his campaign and rushing off to Washington looked a lot like histrionics. All Obama really has to do to show better leadership is not act like a panicky horse in a barn fire. People trust Obama's leadership more on every issue because he doesn't act like a lunatic.

In fact, throughout this current situation, McCain's been goofy. He promised not to leave Washington until a bailout deal was brokered, then backpedalled to participate in the first debate. He then took premature credit for getting a deal and House Republicans voted it down. McCain is a candidate on ice, unable to find any footing at all.

Without any sort of compass in a crisis other than these wild Hail Marys designed to bump up his poll numbers, McCain drifts from issue to issue, seemingly unable to do anything other than react. This isn't leadership and it doesn't look like it. This is mad scrambling to save a sinking campaign.

Penn does make one good point though:

Neither Obama nor McCain has so far used the values-oriented approach that President Franklin D. Roosevelt invoked in his first inaugural address, when he described how the “money changers” had fled their temples, allowing government to restore the temple to “ancient truths.” He fused populism with restoring the basic values of hard, honest work over “callous and selfish wrongdoing.”

The candidates are a long way from his rhetoric or his positions — neither has expressed the kind of outrage that FDR did at the bankers who caused so much economic misery. The average American homeowner has already lost 25 percent of the home’s value — for most people, that’s 25 percent or more of their savings.

Then again, FDR didn't run as the FDR history remembers. Economic populism probably wouldn't hurt, but good luck getting that message out. I woke up this morning, flipped through cable news, and on every channel there was some Wall Street type ripping their hair out (if they had any) and demanding a bailout. And those were the cable news financial reporters. Go ahead, try and get a people-centric economic restructuring past corporate hacks like CNN's Ali Velshi. Obama's been talking about a more demand-side focused economy, in the first debate saying, "So my attitude is, we've got to grow the economy from the bottom up," but I wouldn't expect him to go any farther than that. Corporate media would drop him faster than Dennis Kucinich. It's hard to criticize Obama for not making a futile effort.

So Penn's partially right, Obama's on the upswing and the economy is a big part of it. But it's not the only part. The bigger contributor is his opponent, a candidate so determined to win an election that he's shaking himself apart.