Though I don’t subscribe to it, one can make a case that the fact of the financial meltdown in September cost John McCain the presidential election. But Anne Kornblut, still in high Obama worship mode even after the election, wants to claim that it was Obama’s “measured response” to the crisis that “sealed the election.” She contrasts Obama, “so steady in public,” with McCain who acted “erratically,” particularly when he suspended his campaign.
Kornblut provides no evidence for her claim that Obama’s allegedly superior response to the financial crisis sealed his victory, and the claim cannot withstand scrutiny. McCain’s announcement that he was going to suspend his campaign and return to Washington came on a day when a Washington Post poll showed him trailing Obama by 9 percentage points. Indeed, that evening some of my liberal friends insisted that McCain’s decision was a desperate response to bad polling news. Whatever the validity of that suggestion, it is clear that Obama’s gain and McCain’s slide pre-dated the “erratic” behavior that Kornblut and others blame for his demise.
Even in the absence of the polling data, it would be implausible to claim that Obama’s approach to the meltdown, which consisted essentially of “watchful waiting,” was particularly impressive or inherently superior to McCain’s. The meltdown simply enraged many voters, causing them to lash out against the candidate more closely associated with the status quo which, in this election, was always going to be McCain.
I’m reasonably confident that if McCain had followed Obama’s approach and continued with business as usual on the campaign trail, voters would have construed this as further evidence that he was “out of touch” on economic issues. Similarly, if Obama had returned to Washington to attend to the crisis, he probably would have been praised as the candidate who, rhetoric aside, actually did put his country first. Indeed, Kornblut might have written it that way. The dynamic of the race allowed Obama to get away with sitting back, just as it pressured McCain to attempt bold strokes that could be characterized as “erratic.”
The more plausible criticism of McCain’s response centers on his decision to support the bailout. Exit polling suggests that, on election day at least, most Americans opposed the bailout. Could McCain have won, or done significantly better, if he had opposed it too?
There are two problems with this line of criticism. First, McCain seems to have believed that a bailout was better than no bailout. Under these circumstances, one cannot have expected him to oppose the bailout.
Second, even as a matter of crass political calculation, opposing the bailout was far too risky a move. The bailout may (or may not) be a bad idea in the long run. But, in the short run it’s probable that, with no bailout, the stock market and other indicators would be doing a as poorly as they are now or worse. In this scenario, McCain would be seen as a villain (not just as “out of touch”) had he helped defeat the bailout.
It’s possible, of course, that if McCain had opposed the bailout it would have passed nonetheless. In this scenario, McCain might have come out smelling good for having opposed a solution that “didn’t work.” But as matters stood in September, McCain could not have been confident (a) that the bailout would pass over his opposition and (b) that the bailout would be viewed unfavorably in early November. In any event, as noted, McCain seems to have beleived that the bailout was the right way to go.
Obama deserves credit for defeating Hillary Clinton in a race that was Clinton’s to lose. His victory over McCain, by contrast, was largely pre-ordained. To the extent that anything”sealed” the victory, it was unprecedented amounts of money and, to a much lesser extent, the sort of Obama worship by the mainstream media that Kornblut displays.
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