McCain has used the financial bail-out to try to bail out of his nose-diving campaign. But he doesn't seem to realize that he has landed behind enemy territory.
The most dangerous storyline for McCain is that he is an erratic hothead, a fighter jock who lacks the temperament to be president. This is a far more dangerous narrative than the "serial liar" frame because the latter is inherently a tough sell to the public while the former is not.
The public believes, not without cause, that all politicians are liars -- so I doubt that character flaw is ultimately disqualifying. But they don't expect their leaders to be erratic, untethered, unhinged, reckless, impulsive, rash, impetuous, unstable, unsteady, inconstant, hot-headed, intemperate gamblers.
Of that list, "erratic" is probably the best for Obama surrogates because it is a three-fer: Erratic goes to the issue of temperament and it brings up the issue of flip-flops and it connects to the issue of McCain being out of touch and too mentally old for the job. A surrogate can go anywhere he or she wants after calling McCain "erratic."
Don't get me wrong. Jonathan Chait is certainly correct in his new must-read New Republic piece that "McCain's untruths, in their frequency and their audacity, defy any modern historical precedent."
Indeed, exploiting the serial liar narrative is the key to Obama's Can't-Lose Debate Strategy. But that strategy for winning the post-debate new cycle mostly depends on the media accepting that the McCain campaign has crossed the line on lying -- not the public. If the media reports that McCain has told some lies or made some out-of-touch gaffes in the debate, that should be enough to ensure the debate is not a game changer, and it might even give Obama an outright win. But I seriously doubt the public is going to come to see McCain as the dishonorable, pathological liar he has become. His heroic narrative is too firmly entrenched absent a much bigger push by team Obama than is probably warranted now.
The whisper campaign about McCain's temperament is, however, decades old. And his recent actions -- such as the last-minute largely unvetted pick of Sarah Palin or his absurd call to fire SEC chair Chris Cox -- have fit the narrative to a tee. McCain's character and temperament are obviously fair game once the country's leading conservative editorial page and its most famous conservative pundit join together to shoot it down. As George Will put it:
Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama.
Channeling his inner Queen of Hearts, John McCain furiously, and apparently without even looking around at facts, said Chris Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, should be decapitated. This childish reflex provoked The Wall Street Journal to editorialize that "McCain untethered" -- disconnected from knowledge and principle -- had made a "false and deeply unfair" attack on Cox that was "unpresidential" and demonstrated that McCain "doesn't understand what's happening on Wall Street any better than Barack Obama does."
... the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.
It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?
McCain's move to suspend his campaign probably looked to many independent observers like a desperation move even before David Letterman pulled back the curtain to show how fraudulent the whole effort was. The Today show this morning actually broadcast Letterman ridiculing McCain's erratic and hypocritical behavior twice in the first twenty minutes of the show, giving the lie to McCain's claim he couldn't show up because he was suspending his campaign and rushing to Washington to solve the crisis when in fact Mccain was getting interviewed by Katie Couric at the same time instead and then staying in town to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative the next day. As Letterman said:
"You don't suspend your campaign. This doesn't smell right. This isn't the way a tested hero behaves." And he joked: "I think someone's putting something in his metamucil."
"He can't run the campaign because the economy is cratering? Fine, put in your second string quarterback, Sarah Palin. Where is she?"
"What are you going to do if you're elected and things get tough? Suspend being president? We've got a guy like that now!"
The framing of this by the Washington Post this morning underscores the danger for McCain of the emerging narrative. One of their headlines blared:
John McCain is a gambler by nature...
What he risks, if things don't go as he hopes, is a judgment by voters that his move was a reckless act by an impetuous and struggling politician.
You can't undo the word "reckless" once you are tagged with it. And who really wants an impetuous, compulsive gambler for president? The post "McCain's Financial Crisis Timeline" would be the basis for an excellent campaign ad that starts with McCain's original claim that the fundamentals of the economy are strong, to the rapid flip-flop on the AIG bailout, to the impetuous call to fire Cox, to the bizarre recklessness of the past day.
Really, the only question for Obama, his surrogates, and their ad team is how best to push this extended metaphor. I wouldn't focus to much on it for a few days, since the narrative continues to play out in the media.
As noted above, however, I would immediately start introducing one word into the vocabulary of my surrogates -- "erratic." I tend to think that is the best word because it is hard to argue that McCain has not been erratic, given the events of the last ten days, whereas a word like "reckless" allows the comeback that this issue demands bold action.
That said, any words put on the table by the Wall Street Journal or George Will are certainly fair game, especially for TV ads. So it would make sense for the team Obama to point out that conservatives have already raised the question of McCain's "dismaying temperament," of his "behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high," of "McCain untethered."
As with the Palin pick, McCain has made another desperate gamble that is likely to do him no good and may even go bad. More important, he has introduced a major opening into his character and temperament for the Obama campaign to exploit.