Political Jabs, Sarah Sinking, and the Bailout Opera
By Bernard Weiner
The Crisis Papers
There's been so much happening politically -- the daily scandals, flippity-floppities, hypocrisies, lies -- that it's
hard to know where to begin. Let's start with quick reactions to Obama vs McCain, Round 1, then move on to the upcoming
Palin-Biden debate, McCain's theatric diversions, and on why the Democrats were pushing for the Wall Street bailout.
1. A WHOLE LOT OF JABBING
The Obama/McCain debate was less substantive in its impact, since both candidates' views on the various subjects were
well-known by now, but more revelatory in its visual context: body-language, eye-contact (or lack thereof), physical
Both Obama and McCain clearly had their strategies worked out before they went into the debate. Obama was going to be
polite and deferential to his senior Senate colleague, whereas McCain was going to be distanced from and aggressive
toward the junior senator from Illinois. McCain, who has just about run out of change-the-momentum options, felt he had
nothing to lose by displaying his hard edge, which might play better with white males in the toss-up states.
I don't know how the two approaches played to those who heard the debate only on radio, but those millions who watched
it on television were able to see how each of those strategies played out. I experienced the debate both ways, in a
living room and in my car, and, for what it's worth, I thought it pretty much a draw.
Obama often delivered his charges and responses in McCain's direction, and gave him credit when Obama agreed with him
("John was right about that") before he added the "but" language or went into a broader discussion. In some ways, Obama
was too deferential, backing away from direct confrontations when McCain left himself open for attack. For example, in
the opening financial-crisis section, Obama could have quoted McCain back at himself endorsing deregulation of banks
and/or could have reminded voters that McCain (one of the so-called "Keating Five") was admonished by the Senate Ethics
Committee for conduct surrounding his vote deregulating banks and savings & loans back in the late-1980s. In other words, Obama was doing a goodly amount of jabbing, but didn't deliver the
uppercuts when he could have.
McCain looked like a coiled, angry old man who resented the fact that he had to deal with these charges from a
wet-behind-the-ears junior senator. The result was that McCain came across as condescending and patronizing to Obama
("you just don't understand," "you're naive"). This tactic would have worked just fine if he had confined those epithets
to one or two specific issues and if Obama hadn't been in the room to speak (quite intelligently) for himself. In so
doing, viewers could see that most of the time what McCain charged was lack of "understanding" was really just a
difference of principles or opinions.
If McCain hoped to demonstrate that Obama wasn't at all prepared to serve as President/Commander-in-Chief, it didn't
work. Obama clearly was presidential-enough in his comments, his calm demeanor, his ability to think on his feet, his
well-grounded opinions (even if, like me, you disagree with some of them).
Obama needs to win by a landslide in state after state so as to make it much more difficult for Rove and his minions to
fraudulently manipulate the vote totals. If Obama's poll lead remains within the "margin of error" -- i.e., separated by
just a point or two -- Obama and the country are in big trouble. I guess what I'm saying is that in order to gain enough
separation from McCain in the pre-election polls, Obama needs to be more assertive, sharper in his critiques of his
opponent, putting McCain on the defensive, framing the issues rather than responding to McCain's language and
2. PALIN EXPECTATIONS ARE IN THE BASEMENT
I am astonished that I'm typing these words: I'm starting to feel sorry for Sarah Palin, especially as she prepares to
face real questions in her debate with Joe Biden. Regardless of which candidate you thought won the McCain/Obama debate,
they both spoke with intelligence and knowledge; Biden likewise is a fount of information. Palin clearly is not in that
same league, and she will be demonstrating her appalling ignorance in public in the next debate on Thursday. Indeed, the
expectations for her are so low that if she somehow can manage to stumble her way through the 90 minutes, one can
predict that the corporate press will declare her the "winner" because of her mere act of survival.
She is being prepped by McCain staffers in mock interviews and debates, which, under normal conditions and with a normal
nominee, probably would suffice to get her through the ordeal. But, as was noted in a recent story,
those McCain staffers reportedly told their superiors that the try-outs were "disastrous." Palin is "clueless," they
said, as she's made clear in her recent interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. Palin gets that glazed look in
her eyes and to cover her lack of knowledge, she revs up the lip motor and expels a torrent of disconnected words and
phrases in the hope that somewhere along the line some intelligent thread might emerge.
In fact, her recent performances under questioning have been so bad that she's starting to show up on polls as a drag on
the ticket. As a result, at least two far-right conservative commentators, Kathleen Parker and Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review
have urged her to resign; if that were to happen, McCain could appoint someone with more brain-matter and political
smarts. Even Fox "News" took notice of the anti-Palin rumblings inside the rightwing ranks and put up this story online
, only to quickly scrub it from the site.
I don't think McCain will do anything because, by replacing his choice, he would implicitly be admitting that his
judgement had been faulty, that he made a bad mistake. Since he's already on the defensive about other judgments he's
made (such as voting for going to war in Iraq, to voting for torture, etc.), my guess is that McCain will try an implied
variation of the G. Harrold Carswell Defense.
Who is G. Harrold Carswell? Nixon in 1970 nominated Carswell, an obscure, segregationist judge in Florida, to the U.S.
Supreme Court. A number of prominent attorneys questioned his judicial fitness and Carswell's appearance before the
Judiciary Committee was an embarrassment. As the furor about his nomination grew in the American populace, Nebraska
Republican Senator Roman Hruska said that, yes, Carswell might be a mediocre choice for the Supreme Court but "there are
a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?..."
The American people laughed at that one so long and vociferously that Carswell's nomination quickly was withdrawn.
McCain is a stubborn old coot, not one prone to mea culpas, so unless Palin is willing to suddenly resign as a result of a "personal health problem" or "family responsibilities"
that must be dealt with immediately, I think that Palin is going to have to stand up for mediocrity in public in her
debate with Joe Biden.
3. THE DANGER OF DISTANCING
My political antennae rise whenever I hear politicians attempt to distance themselves from responsibility for their
errors of judgment. The CheneyBush Administration, which of course never admits to error, is notorious for such dodges,
their favorite locution being: "Mistakes were made," or, even more maddening, "mistakes may have been made." No actual
human did anything wrong, you see, just those darned mistakes showing up again.
The most recent example of this type of distancing device was expressed by The Decider the other evening when he
addressed the American people about the financial bailout situation. He indicated that risky and poorly thought-out
decisions were made that led to the financial crisis, but apparently no humans were involved so there was no sense
assigning blame. Certainly no blame attached to his administration, which over the past eight years led the charge for
removing virtually all regulatory oversight from banks and investment houses. And no blame either to those banks and
investment houses for running the high-risk mortgage and derivatives schemes that led to those pesky mistakes showing
Similarly with the GOP candidate John McCain, whose political M.O. in major problem situations is to show up and try to
assume the mantle of crisis-manager extraordinaire. The leaders who've actually been laboring for a long time to get the
problem solved see McCain in their midst and know that a photo-op is no t far behind.
McCain has made a pattern of this, using George W. Bush as his role model. Remember how Bush behaved after the federal
government let the citizens fend for themselves for five days (more than 1000 died) in flooded New Orleans after
Katrina? Dubya flew in with a stage set, spoke to the nation about his concern, promised action, and left immediately,
with the road crew dismantling the set as he departed.
There was no pressing reason why McCain had to "suspend" his campaign to deal with the financial crisis issue. What he
may have been really trying to suspend was his scheduled debate with Obama and thus to perhaps cancel the scheduled
debate between Palin and Biden. Leaders in Congress were hammering out a deal and didn't really want to take time out
from their ticklish negotiations to tramp down to the White House for a McCain/Obama photo op with Bush.
When McCain is facing a major hurdle, his pattern is to disrupt his opponent's momentum with some dramatic interruption.
He and his handlers don't seem to care that they look like desperate chickens. They'll take that hit rather than let his
opponent's momentum continue unchecked.
Obama's Democratic convention was such an enormous triumph that McCain found an excuse to cancel the first night of the
Republican convention, turning the attention to himself by flying to the Gulf Coast (where he accomplished nothing but
did have a good photo-op) and thus altering the news cycle for at least 24 hours. And then last week, he said he was
"suspending" his campaign and would not show up for the debate until there was a financial-crisis bill worked out. (It's
hard to know what he meant by "suspend," since his attack-ads continued to run and his surrogates were still out on the
trail slamming Obama.)
McCain did show up for the debate, and did reasonably well. But, judging from the polls and pundits, not well enough to
change the objective conditions on the ground that have him behind in the national polls and losing enough state
contests that might well grant Obama the Electoral College victory in November.
With Rove as a consulting advisor, it seems clear that his campaign simply has to do something to break Obama's growing
momentum, to shift the electorate's attention elsewhere. I smell an October Surprise, don't you? What might that be,
beyond springing the financial crisis on the nation just a few weeks before the election?
It could be that the economic meltdown, so to speak, WAS the "surprise," changing the conversation in a major way.
My suspicion is compounded by the suggestion that the Administration apparently had this bailout plan in the works for
months and conveniently sprung it on the country when McCain's candidacy was not taking off as they hoped it would.
Marcy Wheeler at FireDogLake spotted this inadvertent admission from White House spokesman Tony Fratto:
"Fratto insisted that the plan was not slapped together and had been drawn up as a contingency over previous months and weeks by administration officials. He acknowledged lawmakers were getting only days to peruse it, but he said this should be
enough." (emphasis supplied)
A side GOP benefit of the Paulson-plan bailout would ensure that Obama, if he wins, will not be able to institute any of
his new programs because no money to do so.
But there are other possible "surprises" that could be sprung. Maybe it could be an elaborately-staged distraction
event, like the public wedding of Palin's pregnant daughter to her boyfriend. Or the bombing by Israel and/or the U.S.
of Iran's nuclear labs. Or perhaps the announcement of pre-emptive arrests in a planned terrorist event in a large
American city. Or maybe the capture or announced death of Osama bin Laden. Or even martial law being declared in the
wake of some announced "national threat" or other, with elections being "postponed." (Note: For the first time, the U.S.
Army has moved combat troops back to the U.S. as part of its Northern Command
to deal with, among other contingencies, civic unrest.) Nothing would surprise me from these guys.
4. THE BAILOUT "OPERA"
The plan for dealing with the economic meltdown brings us to a central question: Was it absolutely necessary for the
federal government to propose a new and immense financial bailout of the various investment banks? And, if it was
necessary, how big would such a bailout have to be, and what was the great rush to get something right now, immediately,
no time to wait, rather than go through the regular process of having hearings and unrushed discussions? The process, or
rather the lack of process, reminded me too much of how the CheneyBush Administration took us into Iraq and into the
brave new world of the Patriot Act: ratcheting up fear, behaving in an authoritarian manner, abrogating all power in the
Executive Branch, making sure the courts can't intervene, forcing a quick vote without proper consultation with Congress
and the American people, etc. etc.
By and large, it was the Democrats who were carrying the water for Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's $700billion-dollar
rescue package, and the House Republicans were determined to sink it. The public, and many of the nation's top economists,
were opposed to the Paulson plan, which would have placed a crushing debt-burden on current and future taxpayers. But
the Democratic leaders, even though they were able to get plenty of public-friendly changes into Paulson's plan,
ultimately were willing to go along with its central premises in some form -- even though the plan mostly would have
benefitted the Wall St. manipulators who caused this mess, not those Americans who had been victimized by it.
Well, the House Monday refused to pass the bailout bill, which had been favored by the Democratic leadership and
grudgingly accepted by McCain and Obama. The Democrats needed the political cover of Republican votes for the bill, and
didn't get enough of them. The Democratic leadership now has egg on its collective face, and Bush and McCain are shown
up as too weak to bring their party along with them. (McCain inserted himself, with much fanfare, into the process;
Obama was more removed.)
What happens now? Since the U.S. and world markets started tanking after the House vote, it seems imperative that
Congress immediately set to work to craft another bill to somehow prop up the financial system -- so as to let the
markets quickly know that something is being done to solve the badly damaged credit system. But Congress must now take
into account many of the objections that sunk the Paulson plan, chief among them the size of the bailout and the
crushing debt-burden that would harm U.S. taxpayers for generations.
Another reason for Congress -- and Obama and McCain -- to act quickly is to attempt to forestall a vicious economic
cycle that could result in a long-lasting recession or even another Great Depression, perhaps global in scale. Neither
party, or candidate, wants to be seen as contributing to such a catastrophic happenstance, so it should be possible to
get some sort of bipartisan bill that can pass. There are lots of good ideas out there, inside Congress and out on the
Politically, the country is in for a big dose of blame-game and partisan spin, trying to fix responsibility for the
continuing economic crisis on the other guy, especially right before the election. If McCain and Obama are smart, they
will immediately try to act "presidential" by calming the waters and uniting the country in search of a quick and better
solution. Already each party is playing wack-a-mole with its opposition. Both presidential candidates need to move fast
to get their parties beyond that.
A smaller stop-gap action could be worked out in the next few days and a more comprehensive plan could be worked out in
the next several months, free of an atmosphere of hyped pressure and deadlines, one that includes a thorough reworking
of the corrupted financial system on Wall Street while protecting small-businesses and individual home-owners and
credit-users on Main Street.
Doing something hastily and sloppily is often worse than doing very little prudently. The country now has the
opportunity, in a somewhat less-charged atmosphere, to make something positive out of this poisoned situation. Let's
watch Obama and McCain carefully and see how each of them demonstrates leadership in this crisis. The election may very
well hang on their respective performances.
Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle
for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org
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