Days after storied financial institutions collapsed this week, John McCain cut an ad in which he vowed to "reform Wall Street and fix Washington." It distilled the way he hopes to frame the campaign: as a referendum on who is best positioned to reform government. And it is no great mystery why he wants to do this.
McCain is a Republican. But it's the Republicans who, over the last eight years, have presided over an economy that's stripped away financial security for the middle class while bestowing the rich with even more riches. And it's the Republicans who let lobbyists write the regulations governing their clients. If voters thought McCain was just another Republican, they would run away screaming. That is why McCain is desperate to shed the label--and Barack Obama is desperate to make it stick.
Except, um, that's not what Obama is doing. On the day before McCain released his ad, Obama gave a major speech on economics. It was a hard-hitting address, in which Obama proclaimed, "It's time to put an end to a broken system in Washington that is breaking the American economy." But the word "Republican" never came up. The next day, Obama released a somber ad in which he addressed the camera for two minutes. It included plenty of smart ideas (something he has never lacked, notwithstanding the bogus charge that he's "all talk"). But its message was all about Obama the non-ideological reformer--that is, the guy positioned to clean up Washington. "Partisan fights and outworn ideas of the left and right won't solve the problems we face today," he said. Republicans? They didn't make cameos here, either. Neither did Bush.
These omissions cannot be coincidental. Somebody in the Obama brain trust has decided that Obama will do better among swing voters if he doesn't draw attention to the fact that McCain is a Republican while he is, gasp, a Democrat. Most likely, these strategists believe that voters disdain partisanship--or, at the very least, disdain the idea of partisanship. Plus they probably think Democrats can't win presidential elections without disowning the tired ideas of the Democratic Party. Since the 1970s, the only Dems to win the White House have been those who ran as non-ideological reformers (Carter) or co-opted parts of the Republican message (Clinton).
But maybe times are changing. Once upon a time, Republicans mocked regulation and government spending--and the voters laughed along. But who's chuckling now? The collapse of investment banks, like the collapse in the mortgage securities market, was a by-product of insufficient regulation. Meanwhile, it's "old-fashioned" Democratic ideas like Social Security--a program Republicans have campaigned to privatize--that insulate senior citizens from drastic declines in the market. And government spending doesn't sound so awful if it means universal health insurance, which can reduce the threat of financial calamity for working families. Democrats have tried to shift the tax burden upward, so that the wealthy pay more of their growing largesse. After eight years of Bush tax cuts reversing that progress--and middle-class incomes stagnating--the case for making the tax code more progressive again is ironclad.
McCain's own record on these issues is no better than his party's. He has no meaningful history of standing up for stronger regulation of the financial industry. "Excessive regulation" has been a standard bogeyman in his speeches. And, for many years, McCain referred to former senator Phil Gramm as his economic mentor. That would be the same Phil Gramm who (with an assist from Clinton advisers) led the charge to repeal the financial regulations that might have helped avert the current meltdown. McCain's support for Social Security privatization is a matter of public record, as is his opposition to universal health insurance. His record on the environment is a bit better, but it must be weighed against his proposals to expand the Bush tax cuts, tilting the tax code even farther toward the wealthy.
Particularly in recent weeks, Obama has--to his credit--drawn attention to these policies. But the overarching theme of his campaign remains what it was--a nonpartisan, non-ideological message of "change." And that may be giving McCain a chance where he might otherwise not have one. The fact that, for a brief period several years ago, McCain really did buck his party and the K Street establishment gives him at least some standing to claim the reform mantle--more, certainly, than he has for presenting himself as a champion of economic security. In an argument over who will stand up to Washington special interests, McCain has, however unfairly, a fighting chance.
None of this means Obama must overhaul his message. With Obama edging ahead in the polls, at least as of this writing, there's no need for panic. But it also seems possible that Obama's earlier success bred overconfidence--and that, because of it, Obama will miss an opportunity both to put this election away and build a mandate for change.
This article originally ran in the October 8, 2008, issue of the magazine.