In whatever years remain to him – and the health prognoses for McCain are cloudy at best – McCain should look back at the 48 hours up to and including Friday night’s debate in Mississippi as the Rubicon he was too frightened to cross. He spurned a huge chance to turn the tables on his all-too-decorous opponent.
McCain should have furiously denounced the bailout. There was no ideological impediment, since the Arizona senator has no firm convictions beyond the precepts of his bankrollers – which can be quickly summed up as: less taxes for the rich. Everything else, the thundering about earmarks, the calls for an abolition of “cost plus” in defense contracting (actually, a truly radical proposition if McCain believed a word of it), is hot air.
A McCain “No” to bailout would have put Obama in a difficult position, exposing the timidity of his own posture, and leaving him with the options of continuing as Wall Street’s errand boy, his role to date, or if he tried to outflank McCain from the left, as a wild-eyed radical.
But McCain’s nerve failed him. In the opening exchanges of the debate even the sedate Jim Lehrer became impatient as McCain and Obama fled the all important matter of the economic crisis and the proposed bailout and retreated into campaign boilerplate about earmarks and tax cuts. Sacrifices? It should not have been hard for Obama to say, right up front in stentorian tones, “You ask, Senator McCain, what I propose to cut in this hour of crisis. John, I propose to cut the war in Iraq. Here’s what it has cost to date…” Long minutes went by before he even touched on this issue.
Weirdly, McCain refused to look at Obama. It was a big mistake. A couple of straw polls from CNN and CBS right after the debate called it for Obama. In the CNN poll “undecided” women and older people plumped solidly for Obama. It’s in these sectors that the race will be won.
I’ll bet that a lot of those pro-Obama votes from women stem from McCain’s inability to look Obama in the eye. How many women have had to put up with that crap from sulky male spouses and partners? Ask Cindy. Ask any woman.
The biggest win Friday night was for dullness. The two candidates trudged through their dutiful exchanges with even more tedium than the chorus in a Greek tragedy hashing over the whims of fate.
The post-match analysts said that McCain seemed asleep at the wheel during the initial exchanges on the economy, the $700 billion bailout proposed by the Fed and the Treasury, but got snappier when the topic shifted to Iraq and Iran.
Indeed it was clear McCain had forfeited his best shot at turning the tables on Obama the moment he declared that he would vote for the $700 billion bailout package for Wall Street proposed by Bernanke at the Fed and the US Treasury Secretary Paulson and endorsed by President Bush.
The bailout is hugely unpopular across the United States. In the past four days I’ve not been in a cash register line in any supermarket where vivid denunciations of Wall Street haven’t mingled with sarcasms about the tycoons’ hirelings in Congress now trying to commit taxpayers’ money to bail out their losses. All this while the hoppers riffle through the National Enquirer for news of Sarah Palin’s love life and about the Youtube films of Bristol.
Every politician in Congress is being told by their office staffs that phone calls are running at least 90 to 10 against the bailout. This is why the Republicans in Congress have found it east to resist the frantic appeals of Paulson, formerly of Goldman Sachs, and instead to say No, leaving the Democrats to whinge and trim, with half-hearted “conditions” attached to the bail-out and fake populist squeaks about reducing executive compensation. Will the Democrats also demand that the tycoons surrender all the money they stand to make if a bailout sends the value of their stock holdings soaring? I don’t think I see the bankers’ whore, Senator Charles Schumer, insisting on that.
Last Wednesday McCain woke up to a thunderbolt crashing into his campaign hq. It arrived in the form of a Washington Post-ABC poll reporting showing that for the first time, among likely voters, Obama was leading McCain by 52 percent to 43 percent. A week earlier the race had been even. This sudden crushing lead told McCain and his campaign managers that the “Palin bounce” had evaporated. The worst financial crisis since the Depression had taken center stage and the voters were clearly assessing McCain as being out of touch.
Perhaps as a relict of his days as a navy pilot, McCain is capable of quick decisions and drastic changes of course. His pick of Palin, snuffing out Obama’s post-Denver glow, showed that. That Wednesday morning, amid the ghastly shock of the Washington Post-ABC poll McCain seized the initiative. The nation was in danger! He would speed to Washington. He urged Obama to do the same. The debate would have to be postponed.
Obama was already meekly playing along, with talk of bipartisanship. And then… McCain blew his golden opportunity. Since he’s now lagging ominously in the ratings, McCain needed to ignite at least one or two firestorms Friday night, starting with the bailout. Now the chance has gone.
The first function of any presidential debate is to demonstrate to the Big Money that both candidates are “safe”, first on the matter of keeping the rich secure from worry. The second function is to assure all relevant lobbies that they are ready and willing to blow up the world if American “security” requires it.
In the requisite demonstrations Obama and McCain sang in unison. They are as one with Wall St. They are ready to blow up the planet. Three times Obama said he completely agreed with the elderly madman opposite him. The interactions became progressively more hackneyed and absurd. Obama pledged to “take out” Osama bin Laden. McCain vowed to prevent another Holocaust of the Jews. Obama respectfully agreed with McCain that Putin is a potential problem and that plucky Georgia needs America’s succor. It was nauseating. Most of the world and its problems didn’t feature at all. Latin America? Free trade?
Between the two of them, the candidates affirmed, often in identical terms, almost every lunatic policy position that has doomed George Bush’s presidency and made America an object of derision and loathing among the nations.
It should have been a no-brainer for Obama simply to chain his opponent to all the disasters of the Bush years, about which the American people have reached a firm and hostile verdict. Obama should be setting forth a new agenda. Instead we got Bush/Cheneyspeak from the Democrat about taking out Osama, repeating all the disasters of Iraq in Afghanistan and invading Pakistan presumably when President Zardari is in Alaska, pursuing Sarah Palin. (Who knows? In the event she doesn’t get to Washington as veep, Sarah can dump Todd and the kids and move on to Islamabad, working for Christ and Empire from the inside.)
A born trimmer, Obama is incapable of going for the jugular or even sounding as though he can take a firm stand on anything. This guy’s no leader. He comes across as a trimmer and a wimp. McCain looks decisive by comparison. He’s a throat slitter by temperament. He nicked Obama a couple of times, but the Wall Street tycoons went unscarred. At a ripe tactical moment McCain declined the role he affects to love. When the chips are down, he’s no maverick.
Among all the sticks with which to whack McCain we should surely be hearing more about the scoundrely banker Charles Keating, the financier and anti-porn crusader, whose fraudulent operations with Lincoln Savings and Loan very nearly derailed McCain’s career after exposure of Keating’s lavish patronage of McCain as one of his protectors in Congress. (Keating spent time in prison and now lives a subdued life in Arizona.)
In 1986, Cindy and her father James invested $400,000 in a shopping center being developed by Keating. An indefatigable traveler, given to impulsive excursions around the world in his private jet, Keating took along Cindy and the children and, occasionally, John. Amid these voyages, Cindy developed with Keating the idea of financing the American Voluntary Medical Team (AVMT) to supply aid to disaster-struck areas. Keating, an ardent Catholic, also introduced Cindy to Mother Teresa. This relationship led to Cindy’s adoption of a baby born in Bangladesh. The adoption came as a complete surprise to McCain.
These trips and the relationship with Keating attracted the scrutiny of investigators probing McCain for ethical misconduct. Beleaguered by accusations that he had been shielding a top-rung corporate criminal, McCain appears to have blamed his wife for the political millstone Keating had become.
According to two emergency room physicians in Phoenix, , who tell us they don’t want their names used, interviewed by CounterPunch, it was at this time that Cindy McCain sought medical attention in the Phoenix area for injuries consistent with physical violence: bruises, contusions and a black eye . There were at least two more visits for medical attention in the Phoenix area by Cindy, with similar injuriesi, between 1988 and 1993.
For the full story of McCain’s treatment of Cindy and of his first wife Carol, I urge you to subscribe to our newsletter. There are crackerjack reports from Jeffrey St Clair and myself and also an update of McCain’s shameful conduct as a POW from Doug Valentine. Also in this latest issue, David Price’s shocking account of how subscribe US intelligence agencies re trying to strong arm an impoverished scholar into being a spook.
Footnote: An earlier version of this column also appears in The First Post.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at email@example.com