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The financial crisis: Which candidate will benefit?

The $700 billion bailout has transformed the presidential campaign. The most important issue now is how to handle an economy at the brink of collapse; neither candidate will be able to deliver on previous promises.

With less than 40 days before Election Day, the 2008 presidential campaign has been transformed, said Jackie Calmes and Jeff Zeleny in The New York Times. Iraq, health care, and other major issues have suddenly been shoved to the back burner. “The financial crisis has turned the race into an audition for who could best handle a national economic emergency.” So far, though, said Michael Goodwin in the New York Daily News, neither candidate “rose to the challenge history presented them,’’ choosing the safer option of political posturing. John McCain blamed the meltdown on the Democrats’ “culture of lobbying and influence-peddling.” Just as simplistically, Barack Obama faulted Republican aversion to regulating the financial system. Then, in a jaw-dropping gambit, McCain proposed suspending a scheduled debate and the campaign itself so both senators could join the deliberations on the proposed $700 billion rescue plan. While Obama seemed overly cautious during the crisis, said Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, McCain’s performance at the wheel of his “Zig Zag Express’’ was nothing less than alarming. At first, McCain responded to the financial crisis by sounding like Herbert Hoover, declaring that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.” The very next day, a clearly panicked McCain remade himself into a fire-and-brimstone populist. Despite having sided with “every deregulatory effort that came up for a vote in his 26 years in Congress,” he excoriated Wall Street for its “greed” and called for regulations and oversight. Then he accused SEC Chairman Christopher Cox of “betraying the public’s trust” and said he would fire him if he were president—even though the president lacks that power. It was, sadly, a window into what a McCain presidency would be like, said George Will in The Washington Post. “For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are ‘corrupt’ or ‘betray the public trust.’” His temperament, with its “boiling moralism” and “impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events,” makes him “not suited to the presidency.” Even if McCain hasn’t been at his best, said Michael Barone in National Review Online, Democrats shouldn’t assume a faltering economy favors Obama. He’s been typically “vague” about what he would do, while McCain is saying, correctly, that rescinding the Bush tax cuts is a terrible idea during a fiscal crisis. That’s because cutting taxes to stimulate the economy is “something that freshman Sen. Obama doesn’t understand at all,” said Donald Lambro in The Washington Times. As for McCain’s impassioned populist rhetoric, he was just taking a page from the book of his “fiery political hero, Teddy Roosevelt.” McCain’s ­righteous indignation “is just the right tone the Republicans need to strike in this hysterical, fear-ridden political environment.”

Both candidates can pander all they like, said Bruce Bartlett in The Washington Post. But as a result of the $700 billion bailout, none of what McCain and Obama has promised voters to date will come to pass. A debt-ridden America can no longer afford tax cuts for the middle class, health-care reform, or indefinite commitments to Iraq. To appear credible and trustworthy, each candidate now has to tell the legion of undecided voters that “they will suffer if he is elected,” with real spending cuts, a return to fiscal restraint and sanity, and yes, higher taxes on at least some Americans. It’s not the kind of sobering message that wins elections, but whichever candidate can pull it off most convincingly is headed to the White House.

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