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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Conservatives Get Their Wish

Going into last night’s final presidential debate, John McCain was regularly getting two diverse bits of advice from conservative gabbers. Some urged him to forget negative attacks on Obama and present a fresh “solution” to the economic crisis, foreswearing conservative orthodoxy if necessary. Others (the vast majority) wanted him to pound Obama on every conceivable front, while clearly articulating conservative principles on every conceivable issue.
It’s pretty clear the latter point of view won out with Team McCain, perhaps because they went through all the file cabinets and didn’t run across some brilliant new approach to the economic crisis. And if nothing else, last night’s debate should help us all avoid a massive amount of post-election second-guessing from conservatives whining that McCain never really waged the culture war or explained how conservatives think about economic policy. We got to hear McCain relentlessly promoting the old-time-religion of growth-through-marginal-tax-rate reductions, spending freezes, attacks on “pork,” etc., etc., while arguing that such conservative chesnuts would somehow represent a sharp break from the policies of the Bush administration. And he certainly gave the ol’ college try to the Ayers Connection, along with a deafening echo of conservative whining about media favortism and double-standards.
In that connection, the two most memorable things in McCain’s presentation were (1) his sneering reference to the “health exception” from permissable abortion bans set out in the original Roe and Doe decisions; and (2) the whole Joe the Plumber litany, repeated endlessly as though it were a campaign-changing silver-bullet.
On the first point, you have to understand that it is an article of faith among conservatives that the “health exception” has turned the balancing act represented by Roe (no bans on early abortion, some bans on late-term abortions) into “abortion on demand.” They may even have a point, from a strictly empirical point of view. But the problem is that a majority of Americans agree with a “health exception,” and won’t react well to the suggestion that “women’s health” is just some sort of self-indulgent excuse for abortions that ought to be banned.
On the second point, much of the economic policy debate of the last three decades has revolved around conservative efforts to sell regressive tax rates, mainly benefitting the very wealthy, by dragging, or pretending to drag, as much of the middle class as possible into the tax-cut bonanza. Hence the central focus on Joe the Plumber (sort of a well-heeled Joe Sixpack), who sounds a lot more sympathetic a figure than Joseph the Investment Banker.
The idea that a three-percentage-point increase on marginal profits above $250,000 among the handful of small businesses that fit Joe’s profile is the difference between socialism and free enterprise, and between depression and recovery, is pretty stupid. But from the historical perspective of conservative efforts to promote trickle-down-economics with a human face, it makes sense. (McCain definitely overkilled it, though. And the only thing worse than listening to McCain mention the heroic Joe twenty-one-times last night was listening to Sarah Palin redundantly yammer about it this morning; she came close to an abandonment of sentences altogether in favor of an incantatory repetition of the Sacred Monniker).
I don’t have much to say about Obama’s performance, other than to note his efficient rebuttal of the Ayers nonsense, and his predictable but effective response to McCain’s “I’m not Bush” zinger. And I’m not the best judge of style points, but the decisive reaction of focus groups and the instapolled to the debate, in Obama’s favor, suggest that McCain’s frantic efforts didn’t go over very well.
In the end, McCain fell back on the exotic but strongly felt conservative belief that the errors of the last eight years were a combination of bad luck, insufficient conservativism, perceptions based on “liberal media” bias, and tactical mistakes in the culture wars. Nobody’s much buying it, but nobody can say any longer that it was the “path not taken” in this campaign.

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