Barring any unforeseen significant events, if the current presidential campaign continues to unfold as it has up to this point, John McCain will lose the election. Sarah Palin and late breaking revelations about Obama are not going to be enough to change this outcome. The only way for McCain to avoid this resut is for him to focus on an area outside his comfort zone: economics.
Starting tomorrow night at the second debate ad until November 4th, the McCain message needs to be all economics all the time. The American people know what John McCain's views are on national defense and foreign policy. They know about his experience in these areas. But these won't be what determines the outcome of the election. The economy will. And right now, fears about the economy are what's driving Obama's lead.
McCain's economic message should have two prongs. The first is to pound home just how harmful Obama's economic policies will be. With the financial crisis pushing the economy into recession, the answer is not higher taxes and more spending. During the recent debates, both Obama and Biden indicated that they wouldn't be willing to abandon any of the plethora of new spending programs they have planned. McCain needs to key on this and ask how they plan to pay for these programs. Again and again. He also needs to keep talking about taxes and he can't be afraid to point out that Obama's vaunted "tax cut" to 85% of taxpayers is really nothing more than a payout to millions of Americans who already don't pay income taxes.
The second prong is to take up the theme of personal responsibility that Palin hit a few times last Thursday and tie it to McCain's fondness for national service and shared sacrifice. It may not be a message that all Americans want to hear, but what McCain should essentially do is tell the country that it's time to grow up.
The Clinton years were really nothing more than extended adolescence for Americans. Not too many worries, not too many responsibilities. 9/11 should have been a clarion call that brought a new level of maturity and seriousness to the land. And for a while maybe it did. But President Bush proved too permissive and was not willing to ask too much of the people. We were told to keep shopping and the Fed was more than willing provide the money to allow us to return to the easy livin' pre-9/11 days (at least economically speaking).
McCain should say that the country must now get its financial house in order. And he should call on individual Americans to do the same. The days of easy money are over. For the government and for individual homeowners and credit card holders.
Now, with the financial crisis unfolding in front of us, Americans want to know who is to blame. Instead of focussing soley on "Wall Street greed," McCain should be honest about this. Yes, Wall Street deserves a share of the blame. As does the government. And borrowers do too. The vast majority of American homeowners are not behind on their payments, and you're not going to insult them if you tell them what they know to be true. Some people took out loans they shouldn't have. They took on inordinate risk and they ended up on the wrong side of the housing market. It doesn't mean they're bad people, but it doesn't mean they're blameless either.
But, after explaining all this, McCain should say that now is not the time for blaming and pointing fingers. That's what children do. Adults fix the problem. He needs to explain how he thinks this should happen, what he would do to avoid a similar situation in the future, and what separates his plans from Obama's. And he needs to be honest and explain this financial crisis is America's problems and all Americans need to help correct it. That might not be "fair," but adults know that life is not fair.
He should also say that there is no quick fix for this problem and we're all going to be feeing the pain of it for some time. He should explain that this means that the days of getting everything we want are over. Instead of promising any new programs, he should call for budget cuts to narrow the deficit. Politicians love to talk about people making "kitchen table decisions" about their family budgets. (Personally, I dislike the comparison, but since it must resonate, let's go with it.) When families face hard times, they look at where they can save money. What do they really need and what they can actually get by on. They often find that they can save a little here and a little there in almost all areas. What if McCain came out and called for an across the board budget cut of 2 or 3% (or whatever you need to balance the budget)? That would include the military, homeland security, department of education, agriculture, etc. It would be savaged by pundits for being too simplistic--using a hatchet when you need a scalpel--but I gotta think that message would have appeal.
Using this same theme McCain could say that hoping that all of our problems will be solved simply by change with the new guy is a childish sentiment. As is the notion that everyone must like us. This is not a time for childish dreams and illusions. It's a time for serious decisions to be made by mature leaders.
That may just be wishful thinking of course. With more and more Americans paying little or no income taxes and more and more Americans enjoying the benefits of government spending in one way or another (and dreaming of even more under Obama), there is good reason to question whether Adolescent America really is ready to grow up.
But if there ever was a time for such a message it would seem to me that time is now. And it's a message that the older, wiser, more-experienced McCain is well-suited to deliver. If he doesn't, we're probably looking at another four years of delayed development.