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McCain: Channeling Dole More Than Ever

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 to 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.   

He didn’t lay a glove on him.

While John McCain’s performance in the second presidential campaign was passable, he didn’t do his failing, flailing campaign any good--mostly because he was unable to follow-up on either his new proposal to address the mortgage crisis or on his familiar criticisms of Barack Obama.

For those with long memories--a demographic that doubtless includes McCain--his lunging attacks on an unrattled Obama recalled the efforts of another aging war hero, Bob Dole, to score points against another fluent debater, Bill Clinton, during the 1996 campaign. Like Dole before him, McCain seems incapable of explaining a complex domestic policy proposal or changing people’s minds about a popular rival.

Asked about the financial crisis, McCain responded with a new policy proposal: having the Treasury buy up the bad mortgages and renegotiate them to reflect the new and lower values of these homes, saving families from foreclosures. It’s rare for a candidate to introduce an entirely new idea in a presidential debate, and he should have been prepared to explain it and keep returning to it. But, having presented it, he didn’t keep talking about it, even in his closing statement.

So it was also with McCain’s attacks on Obama. Over the course of the debate, McCain accused Obama of being beholden to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, hoping to raise taxes, supporting pork barrel spending, wanting to fine small businesses for not insuring their employees, and speaking too belligerently towards Pakistan. Obama had a response to every charge, and McCain either didn’t develop his indictments or simply repeated what he had already said. And since McCain must’ve known how Obama would counter the attacks, it’s amazing he didn’t come prepared with responses to the responses.

Frequently, McCain’s lack of verbal facility tripped him up when he was trying to throw, or parry, a punch. Incredibly, he used the words “fundamental” and “economy” in the same sentence, and he wasn’t even defending himself for having said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. On another occasion, he said American workers are the world’s best “importers”--an unintended reminder of the nation’s growing trade deficit.

For his part, Obama once again made sure to identify himself with the middle class’s economic difficulties and anxieties. He explained his policy proposals, often ticking them off--first, second, and third. Then he would criticize President Bush, “Senator McCain,” or both of them together. His verbal fluency and almost unnatural calm made him seem presidential. In contrast, McCain seemed unsure and unsteady.

Trailing in the polls and having just lost a debate on both style and substance, the Republicans can be expected to return to their reliable issues over the next four weeks: taxes and personal attacks. Sarah Palin and possibly several of those who wanted to be McCain’s pick for v.p. will do the dirty work, painting Obama as somehow alien and elitist. And like Bob Dole before him, McCain may close out with marathon campaigning to prove he’s vigorous enough to say the same things over-and-over around-the-clock.