Game-Changer Fatigue

What is “certain” to dominate headlines between now and Election Day?

Today I predicted in a radio interview that the financial crisis would put Barack Obama in the White House. This story is so big, I said, that it will dominate headlines for the next seven weeks. Obama may not be getting a boost today, but within a few days President Bush’s dismal economic record is sure to increase the Democratic presidential nominee’s standing in the polls.

I still think that last part is true. But mere minutes after concluding the interview I regretted the finality with which I’d declared that economic turmoil would remain the Big Story between now and Nov. 4. What brought about this regret? The realization, after some Googling, that during the previous six weeks no fewer than three successive Big Stories seemed “certain” to dominate headlines through Election Day.

Story No. 1: A resurgent Cold War? Russia invaded Georgia. In Newsweek, Evan Thomas termed it “a 3 a.m. moment,” an allusion to Hillary Clinton’s TV spot  during the primaries alleging that Obama lacked sufficient experience to handle a foreign-policy crisis. Obama was “measured but perhaps reticent” in his response. John McCain was “confident and aggressive—but maybe too much so?” In the Nation, Robert Scheer  called the invasion an “October surprise”—even though it was early August—and maintained that the timing was arranged by McCain’s senior foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, who’d spent the previous four years lobbying for Georgia. That logic seemed a stretch, but the Bush administration did its best to lend plausibility to Scheer’s conspiracy theory by choosing that very moment to locate in Poland Patriot missiles pointed at Russia. Apparently worried that this international crisis might keep bubbling through the election, Obama chose Joe Biden, Beltway veteran and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to be his running mate. Biden is famous for putting his foot in his mouth. (At a recent Missouri appearance, Biden called out to a paraplegic state official, “Chuck, stand up, let the people see you.”) But so what? Biden knows a lot of foreign leaders.

Advantage: McCain.

Story No. 2: A resurgent culture war? McCain chose as his running mate Sarah Palin, a Christian-fundamentalist hockey mom less than halfway through her first term as Alaska governor who opposed teaching teenagers about contraception, favored teaching teenagers about creationism, and displayed a striking lack of sophistication in a series of TV interviews with Charlie Gibson of ABC News. Commentators speculated that the choice might prove so disastrous that McCain would have to replace her, as Democratic nominee George McGovern replaced Sen. Thomas Eagleton in 1972 after revelations concerning Eagleton’s psychiatric treatment. Instead, Palin pounded Obama and the media hard in her convention speech  (“in small towns … we tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco”), created a sensation, and was even credited with giving McCain his post-convention bounce. The culture wars, Politico explained, were “making a sudden and unexpected encore in American politics, turning more ferocious virtually by the hour.” Palin was, the prevailing cliché became, a “game changer,” a “Hail Mary pass”  that paid off. Republican strategist Ed Rollins pronounced that she “has deflected the arc of Obama’s campaign” at a moment when “we are down to a 100-yard dash.” David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a longtime political reporter, wrote, “It’s hard to draw many conclusions about the 2008 race at this distance from Election Day. But it’s hard to resist the notion that the selection of Ms. Palin changed the fundamentals of the race in several critical categories …”

Advantage: McCain

Story No. 3: Financial calamity! The credit crisis brought on by the bursting of the housing bubble puts Lehman Bros. into bankruptcy; nearly does the same to Merrill Lynch, saved when the Bank of America purchases it; and may yet sink American International Group Inc., the world’s largest insurance company. “All of a sudden, the culture war seems entirely beside the point,” writes columnist E.J. Dionne, “an unaffordable luxury in a time of economic turmoil. What politicians actually believe about the economy, what fixes they propose, whether they side with the wealthy few or the hurting many—these become the stuff of elections, the reasons behind people’s votes.” McCain promises “tougher rules on Wall Street,” but he’s haunted by his Republican party affiliation, his longtime dependence on the fervently antiregulatory Phil Gramm for advice on economic issues, and his comment this past March to the Wall Street Journal, “I am fundamentally a deregulator.” Obama moves in for the kill.

Advantage: Obama.

You can see why I was tempted to predict this would clinch the election for the Democrats. But, on further reflection, we probably have time for four or five more transformative events between now and Nov. 4.