The financial crisis changes the entire shape and feel of the presidential election. It isn’t just bad news, it’s bad news that reveals what many people deep down feared, and hoped not to see revealed: that the huge and sprawling financial system of Wall Street is maintained essentially on faith, mood and assumption; that its problems are deep; that at some level the system looks to have been a house of cards. It isn’t just bad news; it’s deep bad news that reaches into the heart of widespread national anxiety.
Everyone is afraid—the rich that they will no longer be rich, the poor that they’ll be hit first by the downturn in the “last hired, first fired” sense, the middle class that it will be harder now to maintain their hold on middle-classness.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans spent the week treating the catastrophe as a political opportunity. This was unserious. A serious approach might have addressed large questions such as: Was this crisis not, at bottom, a failure of stewardship?
Instead, from Barack Obama: It’s the Republicans’ fault, and John McCain means more of the same. From McCain: We’re reformers and we’ll clean up the mess, unlike Mr. I Can’t Think of Anything to Do but Raise Taxes.
Open question only history will answer: President Bush did not address the nation on the crisis until Thursday of this week, almost a week after it began, and Democrats are going to try to paint this as 9/11 times Katrina: Where was he? Will this work? Will it stick? They’re going to try to turn Mr. Bush into Herbert Hoover. Hoover was not good for the Republican brand.
The economic crisis brings a new question, unarticulated so far but there, and I know because when I mention it to people they go off like rockets. It is: Do you worry that neither of them is up to it? Up to the job in general? Is either Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama actually up to getting us through this and other challenges? I haven’t heard a single person say, “Yes, my guy is the answer.” A lot of shrugging is going on out there. This is a read not only on the men but on the moment.
The overarching political question: In a time of heightened anxiety, will people inevitably lean toward the older congressional vet, the guy who’s been around forever? Why take a chance on the new, young man at a time of crisis? Wouldn’t that be akin to injecting an unstable element into an unstable environment? There’s a lot at stake.
Or will people have the opposite reaction? I’ve had it, the system has been allowed to corrode and collapse under seven years of Republican stewardship. Throw the bums out. We need change. Obama may not be experienced, but that may help him cut through. He’s not compromised.
The election, still close, still unknowable, may well hinge on whether people conclude A or B.
A mere hunch in a passing moment: In a time of crisis, confusion and fear, Americans just might, in their practicality, turn back to the old tradition of divided government. They know the Congress will be Democratic. They assume it will soon be more Democratic. Therefore the president they choose may well be of the other party.
A fearless prediction: My beautiful election enters its dark phase.
Lots of signs of the new darkness. Mr. Obama’s army is swarming, blocking lines when Obama critics show up for radio interviews. A study out Thursday said the Obama campaign has become more negative than the McCain campaign. There is the hacking—no one at this point knows by whom—of Sarah Palin’s personal email account. From Mr. Obama himself, a new edge. He tells an audience in Elko, Nev., to “argue” with McCain supporters and “get in their face.” Bambi is playing Chicago style. No doubt everyone around him has been saying, and for some weeks now, “Get tough.” But this is not how to get tough, and it does not reflect a shrewd reading of what the moment demands. People want depth, not ferocity. We’ve got nerves that jingle-jangle-jingle.
And it gives Mr. McCain a beautiful opening. He can now play Oldest and Wisest, damning the new meanness more in sorrow than in anger.
There’s another reason things will get more mean than meaningful. Here is the tough, sad, rather deadly assumption I see rising among our media people, our thinkers, observers and chatterers, the highly sophisticated who’ve seen’em come and seen’em go: It is, again: What if neither of them is the right man? What if neither of them is equal to the moment? What if neither party is equal to the moment?
This is not in itself important—who cares what they think, really? But there will be a small impact in terms of tone. If you are a longtime Obama supporter and are beginning now to admit to deep doubts, you can’t just announce you’ve been wrong for the past year. You’d look like a fool. You cannot speak credibly, or in a way you yourself believe, in rosy support. But what you can do is turn, with new rage, on the guy you’ve at least long opposed. So you ignore Mr. Obama and attack Mr. McCain with new ferocity. Or, if you have doubts about Mr. McCain, you ignore him and turn your heat on Mr. Obama.
The Obama campaign has been one of real dignity and cool, and in this it reflected its candidate. It won’t be good to see this end. It will be sad, actually.
On the Republican side, the legitimate anger sparked by the media’s personal attacks on Sarah Palin and her family has now been funneled, coolly and almost chillingly, into antimedia manipulation. This is no good. It may help the Republicans win, because no one likes the media. Even the media doesn’t like the media. But it invites charges of winning bad. And if you win bad in a 50/50 nation, it makes it really hard to govern.
A final point. Do you ever have the passing thought that the presidential election doesn’t matter as much as we think? Whoever wins will govern within more of less the same limits, both domestically and internationally. A New York liberal leaning toward Mr. McCain told me this week he has no fear that Mr. McCain may be a more militant figure than Mr. Obama. We already have two wars, “we’re out of army.” Even if Mr. McCain wanted a war, he said, he couldn’t start one.
I wonder if we follow the election so passionately because we’re afraid. We’re afraid a lot of our national problems are intractable, and the future too full of challenge.
We cannot tolerate feeling this way. So we make believe the election can change everything. And we follow it passionately to convince ourselves its outcome will be decisive and make everything better. We reassure ourselves with pictures of the cheering crowds at the rally. We even find some comfort in the latest story of the latest dirty trick. But deep inside we think: Ah, that won’t work either.
Some part of me thinks we are all making believe this is a life-changing election because we know it’s not a life-changing election. Ever have that thought? Me too. Then there’s a rally or a scandal or a gaffe, and it passes.