McCain, Walking Backward

On BNN a week ago, talking about Presidential politics, Joe Heisler brought up the question about how a terrorist attack in the next two months might affect the race. I said something to the effect that if any significant crisis occurs during that stretch, the way the candidates behave in the initial 24 hours or so may have a big impact -- not necessarily based on their policies or advice, but on their confidence with the issue, their phrasing, even their body language.

The Wall Street fiasco is arguably one of those crises; although it doesn't involve things literally blowing up, it is a lot more real and close to home for most voters -- who had already been naming the economy as by far their number-one issue for this election. They'll be looking for someone who conveys the impression that he could be President when this happens.

I wouldn't exactly heap praise upon Barack Obama for his response thus far. He has come across as primarily concerned with using it politically, in my opinion. I think that he could have mixed in some sober, don't-panic comments for people. And rather than actually sounding like he understands the complexities of the situation, he sounds like he's trying to prove his smarts by matching the circumstances to whatever he can find that he has said and done in the past.

But John McCain -- whoof!

McCain has seemed unbelievably opportunistic, booking himself on every national talk show this morning and immediately throwing ads on the airwaves. He has sounded uninformed, and uninterested in becoming informed -- just barking about how he's going to go in there and tear the walls down in Washington and those fat cats on Wall Street. 

More tellingly, he and his campaign have spent the past day and a half or so walking back comments.

First, of course, came the "fundamentally sound" statement, which was politically imprudent to say the least. His attempts to walk that back have only required more explanation. McCain also says those magic, confidence-inspiring words: we should form a commission. As he ran through his morning interviews, he was frequently rambling and semi-coherent, as he tried to remember to stick in his chosen phrases-of-the-day -- "9/11-style commission," "alphabet soup of regulatory agencies," "old-boy network," and "social contract between capitalism and the American citizen" -- whenever he happened to think of them. Later today, he (and Palin) claimed that Obama's tax plan would make things much worse -- and in doing so drew attention to the fact that they are flat-out lying about Obama's tax plan. The campaign sent their businessy surrogate, Carly Fiorina, out to handle the issue, and she ended up saying that Sarah Palin is unqualified to be a CEO; then in walking it back she says neither is McCain. Then they send his policy advisor out to argue that McCain knows this stuff because he used to be chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce -- and he bogusly claims that McCain is responsible for the creation of the Blackberry. This was widely mocked, such as by a former FCC chairman who points out that the Blackberry is the result of Canadian innovation, and had to be walked back. (Bonus trivia: McCain was replaced as Commerce chair by Ted "Tubes" Stevens. So there's a whole history of telecom expertise there.)

Also, he started using the phrase "enough is enough" as a tag in his speeches and ads, which Obama has been using for a month now. Oh, and as I've been predicting, the travelling press is starting to get pissed that McCain won't, you know, talk to the press.

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