The Wall Street meltdown has provided Barack Obama with perhaps his best opportunity to extricate himself from the sludge poured so copiously by his opponents. This is serious stuff, unlike the various pig/lipstick/Britney/Paris/Palin sideshows, and, quite frankly, if Obama can't turn this economic crisis to his political advantage, he doesn't deserve to win. Indeed (and here I am updating one of my old lines), if the Democrats can't win a presidential election in this climate, they should simply go out of business, just like Lehman Brothers, and take up residence in the history wing of the Smithsonian Museum, sharing a display window with the Whigs.
The present opportunity has these components:
1. Most voters have been telling pollsters for a long time that America is on the "wrong track," and that they dislike President Bush's stewardship of the economy. Bush has been in charge for the past eight years; Republicans have run Congress for most of that time. Obama, as the nominee of the party that is generally more trusted on economic issues, is better positioned than John McCain to remind voters that the current economic woes have occurred on the GOP's watch. McCain has the burden of trying to distance himself from the governing party, which happens to be his. The old James Carville advice ("It's the economy, stupid") is new again.
2. The current crisis, particularly the mortgage meltdown, is the direct result of Republican deregulation policies, the notion that Wall Street and the free market works best when supervised least. In reality, that's when human greed - the dark side of free enterprise - rises to the fore. Not to get into the weeds here, but the housing bubble burst because the commercial banks, stock firms, and hedge funds were allowed to engage in Ponzi-like mortgage swaps - thanks to two deregulation measures pioneered by Senate Republicans back when they ran the chamber at the end of the Bill Clinton era (and, yes, Clinton signed off). Taken together, these two laws seriously loosened oversight of the financial community.
3. The prime mover behind those GOP deregulation efforts was Senator Phil Gramm of Texas. The name might ring a bell. That's the same Phil Gramm who has long been tight with McCain - and vice versa, since it was McCain who chaired Gramm's failed run for the presidency in 1996. Gramm, in his current incarnation as a banker, was also serving this year as McCain's chief economic advisor until he was bounced from the post after referring to Americans as "whiners" suffering "a mental recession." Obama now has the opportunity to repeatedly tie McCain to Gramm and hence to the deregulation climate fostered by Gramm.
4. McCain quickly put out a statement yesterday saying that as president he would "replace the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street" - which is a bit rich, considering the actual fact that he has been in Washington for a quarter of a century and has a virtually zero track record as a reformer of the patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight. Six years ago, he reportedly did offer one amendment on an accountability reform bill, but otherwise, his long tenure contradicts his "maverick" marketing. In fact, back in the mid-'90s, when the GOP was riding high on Capitol Hill, McCain proposed a moratorium on existing federal regulations, which he insisted were wrecking "the American dream." And as he told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, "I'm always for less regulation." Obama now has the opportunity to factually demonstrate that the McCain's "maverick" image is a fraud.
5. McCain handed Obama a gift yesterday, by declaring that, despite the Wall Street meltdown, "the fundamentals of the economy are strong." The McCain people quickly realized that their candidate had screwed up (after all, if Obama had uttered those same seven words, the McCain people would have jumped for joy). So they made sure that McCain got out there, within the same news cycle, with a clarification of sorts. McCain soon explained that what he had meant to say was that the fundamentals of the economy are strong because of the greatness of America's workers. (Which perhaps means that, from now on, whenever Obama talks pessimistically about the state of the economy, McCain will accuse him of being "against the workers," a distant cousin of "against the troops.") Obama now has the opportunity to repeatedly quote McCain's initial remark, and perhaps tie it to McCain's primary-season admission about how "the issue of economics is not something that I've understood as well as I should."
6. The current crisis gives Obama the opportunity to invoke the Democratic label and close the sale with some of the resistent working-class Democrats. They may never warm to him, but he can potentially argue that the Republican ideology is responsible for their woes and that the Republican candidate, who has long been in thrall to that ideology, can't be trusted to make things better. Indeed, Joe Biden played the party card this morning on CNN: "Who has been the captain of the helm (for) these past eight years?...The Republican economic philosophy that John (McCain) has adhered to, that has driven us into this hole."
Given such rhetorical weaponry, is it possible that Obama could still fail to hit the target and profit politically? Absolutely.
He has yet to demonstrate that he can speak affirmatively about his own kitchen-table proposals in the kind of everyday language that resonates (for his sake, he'd better pick up some tips from his allegedly new best friend, Bill Clinton); he is dogged by the liberal label, to the point where, even though he is repeatedly promising tax cuts to most Americans, and even though his agenda spells out the details, a lot of voters simply don't believe him; and even though he did warn of an impending housing crisis 18 months ago, and delivered a speech six months ago about the need for better federal oversight of the financial sector, he can't prove to the voters that he has successfully championed oversight during his brief Senate career. Because he hasn't.