The Big Mo’ may have just shifted again. The implosion of the financial markets, which former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently called "by far" the worst economic crisis in his lifetime, has once again made the economy issue #1 in the presidential race. While the demise of Lehman Brothers and some other former financial powerhouses is bad news for the economy and for a lot of workers, at a strictly political level, it is good news for the Obama campaign.
Last week, I wrote about how momentum influences and drives an election. Over the last several weeks, the Palin pick and the Obama campaign’s lack of message discipline gave McCain the chance to seize the Big Mo’ by positioning himself as the agent of change. With the Wall Street disaster on the front page of every newspaper and the topic of choice around every water cooler, several things have happened:
First, people have stopped talking about Sarah Palin. That’s bad news for McCain, because she is his symbol of change and 2008 is the Platonic form of a change election. Every news cycle that is dominated by Sarah Palin (the size of her crowds, her take-no-prisoners, folksy commitment to reform) is a good day for the McCain campaign, yet she is fast becoming old news.
Second, McCain has been forced to talk about the economy and, once again, he has taken very careful aim and shot himself right in the foot. For nearly the twentieth time in this election cycle, McCain told an audience (on the day of Lehman brothers bankruptcy filing) that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong." Now, to be fair, I know what he meant. The economy, though facing a crisis and almost certainly headed toward recession, is not about to fly off of a cliff. The U.S. economy is a complex system with in-built safeties designed to prevent a recession from becoming a depression.
But in politics, as we know, perception is reality. And when McCain uses this phrase, people are likely to think that he is a bit aloof when if comes to their very real pocketbook concerns, prompting among them the kind of head shaking that accompanied his assertion that he did not know how many houses he owns.
Lastly, the Obama campaign has imposed a renewed discipline on its message. It has stopped talking about Palin and is talking everywhere to anyone who will listen about the economy, the economy, the economy. U.S. voters trust the Democrats more to handle the economy and it is historically true that in bad economic times the party out of power tends to benefit. If the economy remains THE issue occupying the news cycle, the Big Mo’ may move Obama’s way.
Matt Malone, S.J.