STEVE BOUSER: Battlefield Shifts Under Feet of Candidates
Generals, they say, are always preparing, training and equipping for the last war instead of the next one.
Something similar may be going on in the presidential campaign. Two candidates and their staffs now find themselves duking it out on terrain that looks dramatically different from what they -- and the voters who chose them in a primary campaign that began a year ago -- expected it to be.
Just as the military victory often belongs to the army best able to adapt quickly to unforeseen battlefield conditions, the 2008 presidential election may well belong to the candidate who can respond mostly nimbly and convincingly to the momentous events that unfolded in that newsiest of summers that ended Monday, climaxing with the Wall Street meltdown.
So far, neither Republican John McCain nor Democrat Barack Obama has responded with impressive leadership to this monster crisis. Part of it is that they have had the wind knocked out of them like the rest of us and don't know what to think. Part of it is that this isn't the fight they signed up for.
"You have to go to war with the army you've got, not the one you want," former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said. Maybe this is a variation on that: You and your army have to go to the war you've got, not the one you want.
A year ago, if you had asked Obama or McCain or any voter what issue was likely to dominate the campaign in September, the overwhelming choice would have been the war in Iraq. Who could have guessed that it would now be relegated to the back pages of daily papers and afterthought status on network news broadcasts?
At this point, both campaigns face the political equivalent of, say, melting down all their tanks and turning them into missile defense shields or something, and sending all the troops into crash retraining sessions. Instead of convincing voters that they have the best formula for bringing the war in Iraq to an honorable end, both campaigns have to retool in mid-battle, with only a few weeks left, and give top priority to explaining why they are better equipped to play the Moses who leads us out of the scary economic wilderness in which we find ourselves wandering.
Offhand, the situation would appear to put McCain at a disadvantage for two obvious reasons: (1) He is a military man, and expertise in war is his thing. If Iraq were still the pivotal point of discussion, he would have been able to make Obama look like the green and inexperienced one. (2) McCain is on record as saying more than once: "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." But it's a little late to be going back to school and taking Econ 101.
Also, one indispensable gift for a Moses leading the panicky Israelites out of the wilderness is inspiring oratorical skill. And that's definitely Obama's strong suit and McCain's nemesis.
Still, it must be said that neither man, as of this writing at least, has come close to rising to this most challenging of occasions. Rather than acting like a Roosevelt or a Churchill rallying the nation's flagging spirits in time of dark crisis, both are of plugging along like politics as usual.
McCain got off to a bumbling start last week by telling the nation that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong." But Obama wasn't much better, spending more time making fun of McCain than setting forth his own bold recovery plan, if any.
Later in the week, McCain came out against bail-outs, then in favor of bail-outs, then against them again. Obama seemed to be pounding away at McCain while waiting to see which way the wind was blowing with the administration and Congress before taking any meaningful stand of his own.
The first of three presidential debates is only a couple of days off. In an unfortunate case of timing (maybe fortunate for the candidates), it will focus on foreign affairs. That gives them more time to cram on the economy but leaves the rest of us hanging.
The last couple of months of a campaign, when everything is already highly polarized, may seem like the worst possible time for the Wall Street roof to cave in. But in a way, the timing is good: It provides a laboratory experiment to let the rest of us see how decisively and flexibly the candidates respond to unexpected emergencies.
Isn't that what being president is all about?
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
More like this story