And will Obama walk into it?
Certainly all the signs are there: McCain’s sudden decision to abandon the campaign and rush to Washington for high-stakes summits with Bush and Obama, and with Republican and Democratic leaders negotiating the administration’s bailout bill. While Obama echoes the Democratic leadership in expressing cautious support for the bailout bill, McCain remains largely silent except to tell Republicans leaders that he “has their back.” He then reverses his stance again, and decides to debate after all. What could he be thinking?
If McCain is smart, he’s thinking this: if surveys are to be believed, most of the country is not convinced that the Bush Administration’s $700 billion bailout plan is warranted, a viewpoint that is shared by conservative Republicans in the House. Most Democrats, including Obama, as well as most Senate Republicans, on the other hand, do support the plan, contingent on safeguards being built in to increase Congressional oversight of any bailout plan while reducing the treasury secretary’s authority to assume the debts of failing financial institutions. The differences between the Democrats and Bush are not in the overall bailout policy framework but in the details regarding how to implement it. Those are critical but negotiable differences, and both sides are confident that they will come to an agreement before Monday.
So what is the trap? If I am McCain, I allow Obama to use tonight’s debate to reiterate his cautious support for the Democratic/Bush plan, assuming tax payers are protected, etc., etc. And then I spring the trap by coming out squarely against the Bush-Democratic plan, labeling it a deal that benefits Wall St. financiers at the expense of middle-class Americans who are being asked to clean up the mess created by Wall St.’s excesses. Ordinary Americans don’t get government bail outs, I would say. Rather than the Bush-Democratic plan, I would instead embrace, at least as a starting point for negotiations, the Republican alternative plan that calls for financial institutions to buy insurance from the government (with a capital gains tax cut thrown in to boot) – a much cheaper proposal, and one that plays much better to the Republican base. Sure the experts are against it (the same experts, by the way, who assured us there were WMD’s in Iraq!)
What does this accomplish? It places McCain squarely in opposition to Bush (four more years of Bush-Cheney? I think not!), the Democrats – and Obama – on the most important economic policy debate that is likely to arise during this campaign. It reinforces McCain’s reputation as someone not beholden to either party. It plays directly to the economic views of independents and lower-to-middle income voters who are the key swing bloc in this campaign. Finally, it provides an immediate and highly-publicized antidote to the perception that Obama owns the economic debate, and that this is McCain’s Achilles heel. Suddenly it is Obama who becomes the establishment candidate, working hand-in-glove to implement the Bush-Paulson plan, and it is McCain who is the maverick reformer who stands up for the Main St. small businessmen and women.
Admittedly it is high risk strategy – Palinesque in its potential upside, but with a real downside as well: it risks roiling the financial markets even more, continuing the credit crunch, and likely contributing to more of the stock market rollercoaster. And of course the media will attack McCain for playing politics with a volatile issue. But if it allows McCain to separate himself from Bush, and counteract Obama’s clear advantage on the economy, and if it serves as leverage that McCain can use on behalf of conservative Republicans at the negotiating table, the benefits likely outweigh the risks. Without a reversal in how voters view the candidates and the economy, Obama is going to win this campaign. If McCain truly believes the country is better off with him as President, he needs to change that scenario.
Earlier this year I asked if McCain had the imagination to choose a women V.P. in response to Obama’s failure to put Clinton on the ticket. He showed that he did.
Can he make it two for two? Has he set Obama up for tonight by carefully orchestrating events during the last three days in a high stakes bid to reverse the impact of the financial credit crunch on the presidential race? If so, it would be an audacious affirmation that the McCain team is once again playing chess to Obama’s checkers. Contrary to media and pundits’ commentaries, debates are almost never game-changers as I pointed out in an earlier post. McCain must hope that history doesn’t repeat itself. He needs to capitalize on what I expect to be an unusually large viewing audience for this debate to change the election narrative. If he does not – if the economy continues to be the winning card for Obama – McCain will lose the election.
What will it be? Trap or stalemate?
I’ll be live blogging the debate as we find out….