It’s natural for political professionals to emphasize the importance of campaign tactics and events, as Shrum does in advising Biden on etiquette for Thursday’s debate. Tactics and events are what they are paid to create and manage. And sure, at the margin, tactics and events make a difference. In a close election, they can even prove decisive: Who knows what might have happened had Al Gore delivered a more effective and appealing performance in the 2000 presidential debates?
But most presidential elections are not that close—and in these more normal elections, what matters most are real-world events and the candidates’ responses to them.
Sarah Palin could peel the bark off Joe Biden Thursday night. That won’t alter the harsh financial news of the week—or much compensate for John McCain’s feckless response to it.
It seems to me the obsession with the campaign “tick-tock” and the point tally in televised debates misses the real story.
The core difficulty McCain faces in 2008 is this:
Even before the Wall Street crisis, the American economy in the Bush years had under-performed from the point of view of the average worker. While national output rose strongly, most of the gains went to the top five percent of American households.
We can debate the reasons the bottom 95 percent did so poorly. I myself believe that lax immigration policies have been a crucial and under-discussed part of the story. But whatever the reason, most Republicans have been unprepared even to acknowledge these facts, much less explain them. They insisted that the Bush economy was “the greatest story never told.”
The failure to acknowledge facts was also an indispensable precondition to the Wall Street crisis. If in 2005 or 2006 you warned a senior Republican that incomes were stagnating, he might very well have answered: “Those figures have to be wrong. Look—consumption keeps rising!” He’d have been right about that. As incomes stagnated, Americans financed their lifestyles by borrowing against their apparent increases in wealth, as measured by the rising values of their houses. That was the problem!
But maybe not as big a problem as another piece of the “greatest story never told”: the increase in home ownership beyond the traditional range of 60 percent of households to record highs of 67 percent or more. That last seven percent consisted of beneficiaries of the new subprime mortgages, which omitted down payments and other indicia of credit-worthiness.
It was because Republicans had difficulty assimilating these facts that so many responded to crisis by insisting that the “fundamentals are sound.” To have perceived that the fundamentals were not sound would have entailed rethinking the experience of the past half-decade. Nobody was equipped to do that—John McCain least of all.
In the crisis, instead, McCain fell back on his instinct to hunt for malefactors and villains. That hunt did not lack for quarry. Yet it also was bound to miss the real story of this economy—and this election.