Raleigh, N.C.- As a fellow Washington veteran running up against a young, fairly inexperienced candidate in a surprisingly close race, I thought Sen. Elizabeth Dole might have some perspective on what John McCain can do to change the game tonight.
"I think he's probably got to be a little more forceful, aggressive, and passionate," she said, but declined to say on which points, except that she thinks the experience message remains important. "The most important job of the President of the United States is serving as Commander-In-Chief. There's just no question that that kind of experience matters."
Everyone's trying to answer that question today, except for Ana Marie Cox and Tucker Carlson, who have both rightly observed that any attempt by McCain to regain the momentum in this race would be self-evidently racist:
Ana Marie Cox: This is the $55 million dollar question. ($55M being about what McCain has left to spend on the campaign.) I am not sure if there's anything McCain can do to leverage a good debate performance into come-from-behind momentum. At best, he could change the narrative or make news (which doesn't necessarily change the narrative). I think his best bet is to somehow highlight one of the areas of nagging concern about Obama that will resonate even with those that like him: His arrogance or presumption, his apparent ease with power.
But of course that would be racist.
Tucker Carlson: I agree with Ana on both points: There's virtually nothing McCain can do to change what seems like the inevitable course of the election. Debates are always oversold as decisive moments, I think. Plus, at this point it would be racist for McCain even to try to win the election.
Only Obama can stop his own campagin at this point.
A couple of things I'd like to hear from a newly "forceful, aggressive, passionate" McCain tonight:
1) Push-back on Fannie and Freddie and the causal myth of "deregulation." Honest reporters and McCain's limited discussion of Democrats' complicity in the mortgage crisis have reached voters here in North Carolina, judging by the discussions I hear in bars, restaurants, and campaign events. Not surprisingly, the results of such an attack would likely be very good for McCain.
Beyond Fannie and Freddie, though, McCain should channel his inner Milton Friedman to fight back explicitly against the idea that it was deregulation that caused the crisis. Try these facts on for size, about who bought toxic assets and who did not:
Who were the purchasers? They were by no means unregulated. U.S. investment banks, regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, bought piles of toxic waste. U.S. commercial banks, regulated by several agencies, including the Fed, also devoured large quantities. European banks, which faced a different and supposedly more up-to-date supervisory scheme, turn out to have been just as rash. By contrast, lightly regulated hedge funds resisted buying toxic waste for the most part -- though they are now vulnerable to the broader credit crunch because they operate with borrowed money.
Or, the more sound bite friendly: "There's been deregulation in our economy over the last decades, but none of it has been in the financial sector. Furthermore, while I was sponsoring bills and speaking on the floor about the very kind of regulation of Freddie and Fannie that might have made a difference in this disaster, you were silent in the Senate, as you have often been on important issues that require going against your party or their cash cows."
2) Sen. Obama's tax cut? Yeah, that's welfare. He would take money from people who do pay taxes to give it to those who pay no income tax, and he has very cleverly renamed that a "tax cut." Here's the thing, Sen. Obama: You can't give a tax cut to 95 percent of Americans when 40 percent of Americans pay no income taxes at all. The money that Obama will call a tax cut when he gives it to someone else is more accurately known to you hard-working folks out there as "Tuesday's paycheck" or "the four dinners I would have taken my wife to" or "the little pink bike I would have bought my daughter." Which brings us to...
3) The Plumber. Joe, the plumber. Joe Wurzelbacher, the plumber: conduit for the life-giving flow of common sense-induced concern from normal Americans and small businessmen fearful of Obama's tax plan and unlucky recipient of Obama's college digestion of Marxism. Obama revealed to Joe exactly what he is, and McCain should make that clear to Americans without lacing it with any Senatorial niceties.
4) The end of Mr. Nice Senator. Tell America that Obama's tax-and-spending plans would crush an already crippled economy, that his protectionism would close markets to our products, that his health care mandates and tax hikes would force small businesses to let people go. Tell America that he has horrible enough judgment to hang out with a domestic terrorist, and then facilitate that radical's work in the public school system your children attend, and then asks voters to trust him representing them across the table from Ahmadinejad. Tell America that he is a product of machine politics who pays a well-known voter fraud organization to get out the vote for him, repeatedly lies about the association, and wipes his website of the evidence of his lie, all while presenting himself as a pristine pillar of the new politics. These arguments are not out-of-bounds (nor is Wright, for that matter), and McCain should not be ashamed of voicing them, and doing it with passion. Every second wasted on being overly kind to Barack Obama tonight is just that: wasted. He's got the press to love on him. No need for McCain to do it.