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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Stop, Thief!” Cried the Burglar

The financial meltdown on Wall Street is stimulating some very creative messaging from the McCain campaign. Now, all of a sudden, he and Sarah Palin are depicting themselves as chomping at the bit to get into office and crack down on Wall Street, presumably via some government action.
That’s perfectly understandable from a tactical point of view; the only arrow in Team McCain’s quiver that’s remotely relevant to the current crisis is the threadbare but still effective claim that the Arizonan is a cranky “maverick” who wants to change Washington.
But as both the news media and the Obama campaign are quickly pointing out, McCain’s record on regulation of financial institutions couldn’t be much clearer.
The lede in Michael Shear’s front-page WaPo article today gets right to the heart of the matter:

A decade ago, Sen. John McCain embraced legislation to broadly deregulate the banking and insurance industries, helping to sweep aside a thicket of rules established over decades in favor of a less restricted financial marketplace that proponents said would result in greater economic growth.
Now, as the Bush administration scrambles to prevent the collapse of the American International Group (AIG), the nation’s largest insurance company, and stabilize a tumultuous Wall Street, the Republican presidential nominee is scrambling to recast himself as a champion of regulation to end “reckless conduct, corruption and unbridled greed” on Wall Street.

Following the same line of argument, Barack Obama yesterday went right after McCain’s record on financial institutions, and tied it to a general philosophy of reflexive deregulation that has been one of the most consistent features of GOP ideology since the 1980s:

Yesterday, Obama seized on what he called McCain’s “newfound support for regulation” and accused his rival of backing “a broken system in Washington that is breaking the American economy.”
In a speech in Golden, Colo., Obama blamed the economic crisis on an “economic philosophy” that he said McCain and President Bush supported blindly.
“John McCain has spent decades in Washington supporting financial institutions instead of their customers,” he told a crowd of about 2,100 at the Colorado School of Mines. “So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.”

These attack-lines may, of course, get blurred by the he-said she-said dynamics of the presidential campaign, whereby voters tend to accept the credibility of their favored candidate’s claims about underlying facts, actual facts be damned.
But it can’t be good for McCain that the media and the country have forgotten about pigs-and-lipstick and oil drilling and cultural issues for a few days, as the incumbent administration of his own party struggles to avoid a complete financial collapse, at a time when most Americans were already convinced the economy’s in deep trouble.
In a much-discusssed post yesterday, TDS Co-Editor William Galston argued passionately that Obama needs to get out of tactical day-to-day exchanges with McCain and stick to a simple, comparative account of what he would do to address economic concerns versus what we could expect from any Republican president.
I don’t think the financial crisis qualifies as an emphemeral, flavor-of-the-day controversy. It epitomizes the sense of helplessness of Americans whose current and future economic aspirations are being endangered if not squandered by irresponsible behavior enabled by reflexively pro-business, anti-governent, free-market ideology. It’s a subset of the general refusal of conservatives and the GOP to make the interests of middle-class Americans a priority in a rapidly changing, globalizing economy.
Convincing swing voters that John McCain is part of the economic problem rather than its solution, and is so blinded by ideology that he can’t champion “change,” is now crucial for Obama. I think he understands that, and is adjusting his campaign accordingly. But as Galston points out, there’s no longer any margin for error. If McCain is allowed to get to election day perceived as a credible “safe change” option on the economy, instead of a burgler crying “Stop, Thief!” when his own philosophy produces terrible results, then we may be forced to find out whether Obama’s vaunted ground game can make a big difference.

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