Perpetually fretting Democrats will not want to accept it. The campaigns themselves can't afford to believe it. Many journalists know it but can't say it. And there will certainly be some twists and turns along the way. But take it to a well capitalized bank: Bill Ayers isn't going to save John McCain. The race is over.
John McCain's candidacy is as much a casualty of Wall Street as Lehman or Merrill. Like those once vibrant institutions, McCain's collapse was stunning and quick. One minute you are a well-respected brand. The next you are yelling at the messengers of your demise as all around you the numbers start blinking red and stop adding up.
McCain's road was difficult to begin with: the President of his party has had record-low approval ratings for two years and the number of Americans who say the country is heading in the wrong direction is stratospheric. He also had the misfortune to be pitted against an exceptional candidate running an extremely well-executed campaign.
Still, before Wall Street's collapse Senator McCain was ahead. His approval ratings remained high, his VP pick had generated excitement and interest, and his campaign operatives were capable, on any given day, of winning news cycles and giving their opponents fits. And then the underpinnings of American capitalism begin to sink -- and with them sunk McCain.
An election dominated at its inception by the war in Iraq is now overwhelmingly focused on the economy. More than half of voters in polls say that the economy is their top concern and Senator Obama enjoys double digit leads among voters asked who can better fix our economic mess. Put simply, there is no way Senator McCain can win if he continues to trail Senator Obama by double digits on the top concern of more than half of voters.
State polls are beginning to reflect this. If the election were tomorrow, Obama would win all of the states John Kerry carried and add Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, Ohio and Florida. Barack Obama is campaigning in Indiana, which last went for a Democrat in 1964 and North Carolina, which has gone for a Democrat only once in thirty-four years. At the same time John McCain has pulled out of Michigan and Sarah Palin has been forced to visit Nebraska.
This dynamic is very unlikely to change. John McCain's goal in the first debate was to discredit Senator Obama as a credible Commander in Chief and elevate the issue of foreign policy and national security. He didn't come close. Absent a domestic terror attack the economy will remain the number one issue in the race, and there is little Senator McCain can do to make up his gap with Senator Obama on it. Oh, Senator McCain will try to make issues of Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko and Rev. Wright, and that might hurt Senator Obama around the margins -- but it will not prevent him from winning. The economy is simply bigger than the rogues gallery that John McCain is conjuring up.
Why is this? Why won't the swiftboat tactics work this year?
Its easy to lose sight of it in the day to day coverage, but the collapse of Wall Street in the last weeks was a seminal event in the history of our nation and our politics.
To put the crisis in perspective, Americans have lost a combined 1 trillion dollars in net worth in just the last four weeks alone. Just as President Bush's failures in Iraq undermined his party's historic advantage on national security issues, the financial calamity has shown the ruinous implications of the Republican mania for deregulation and slavish devotion to totally unfettered markets.
Republicans and Democrats have been arguing over the proper role of government for a century. In 1980 voters sided with Ronald Reagan and Republicans that government had become too big and intrusive. Then the economy worked in the Republicans' favor. Today the pendulum has swung in our direction. Republican philosophies have been discredited by events. Voters understand this. This is a big election about big issues. McCain's smallball will not work. This race will not be decided by lipsticked pigs. And John McCain can not escape that reality. The only unknowns are the size of the margin and the breadth of the Democratic advantage in the next Congress.
Howard Wolfson also blogs at Gotham Acme