In the final debate of this presidential campaign, John McCain nailed his colors to the mast. He declared his allegiance to the GOP and to the conservative movement that has dominated it for the past 30 years.
This may not have been his first choice of a strategy. And it may not be the way to the White House in this historic year, owing to circumstances beyond McCain's control and indeed beyond anyone else's.
The U.S. economy is plummeting into recession with the global economy tumbling after. President Bush is unpopular to an almost unprecedented degree and perceived as dangerously irrelevant. Ever since the mortgage mess became the financial meltdown, the advocates of deregulation and unfettered free enterprise have been in free fall. The fortunes of the GOP have followed suit.
For the moment, the economy is everything. No one is talking or thinking of the other legs of the classic conservative tripod national security and moral values. In fact, the U.S. faces multiple crises around the world right now, and threats to traditional mores abound. But hardly anyone noticed when Connecticut became the third state to recognize same-sex marriages last week, and the topic did not come up in the final debate.
What did come up was a list of issues on which the two parties have long occupied clearly marked territory. The candidates sparred predictably over taxes and spending, spreading the wealth, providing health care, creating jobs. They disagreed about abortion and about what kind of justices the Supreme Court needs next.
The salient questions of the evening were: What will you do to restore the credit and banking systems? How will you bring the markets back? Can you fend off or at least minimize the coming recession?
With few exceptions, the candidates stuck to the scripts their parties have followed for decades. McCain advocated tax cuts for the investing class; Obama saw the country rebuilding prosperity from the bottom up. McCain blamed the problems on a greedy few and a corrupt government. Obama said there had been much too much greed and far too little oversight from Washington.
For the moment, at least, the mood of the country seems to be swinging toward the Democratic prescription. McCain knows this and touts his aisle-crossing cred. He notes he voted for Supreme Court justices who favored abortion rights. He offers to allow unemployment benefits to go untaxed in the current crisis.
But by and large, McCain's economic plans aim to refurbish investment and the private sector while restraining government. Despite a record budget deficit this year (in nominal dollars), one that could balloon to $1 trillion in the coming recession, McCain insists that "no one's taxes should be raised."
That would mean all the money for all the bailouts and rescues the government has agreed to, plus all the wars and other commitments, must come from existing or lowered taxes and borrowing. That is the supply-side solution, to be sure.
McCain also reached for other weapons familiar from recent presidential campaigns. He attacked voter sign-ups by the community organizations known collectively as ACORN, calling them a vast scheme to defraud the voting system. In recent days he has also blamed ACORN in large measure for the mortgage meltdown because it worked to get poor people into homes. He has made basically the same argument in blaming the government-sponsored Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for too many low-income families' getting mortgages.
And he implied that contacts in recent years between Obama and 1960s bomber William Ayers mean Obama has something to hide about radical ties and terrorist sympathies today.
The facts in each case are, at the very least, disputable. But there is no argument among those conservative activists who consider voter fraud a major scourge and Obama an obvious liar. For weeks these elements of McCain's support have demanded that he raise these issues in the debates.
Until the last debate, McCain demurred. But in the end he had no option. A mere draw in the last round would seem to cement Obama's lead in the polls. There was no more time to await a Democratic collapse.
Will raising these matters during the debate save his campaign? The overnight polls gave little reason to think so. Indeed, some recent polling shows the Ayers and ACORN lines have hurt him at least as much as they have helped. Voters are clearly more interested in economics than in illegal registration or what McCain himself called "some old washed-up terrorist."
But to understand McCain's choice, you must remember that the conservative formula has been the way to win for several decades. The trail blazed by Barry Goldwater in defeat in 1964 and followed to success by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the Bushes has brought home Electoral College victories in seven of the last 10 presidential cycles usually with big margins.
Whipsawed by critics who told him to "take the gloves off" one week and "fire his campaign" the next, McCain could not please his own core backers and the larger electorate at once. It was time to make a choice. Keeping the base united and excited could mean everything for statewide and down-ballot GOP candidates throughout the country. And with the current economic and political climate turning colder by the day, pleasing the larger electorate seemed less and less realistic.
So McCain chose shelter in the issues, philosophy and tactics that have powered his party since its smashing midterm victories in 1978 (halfway through Jimmy Carter's presidency) and its sweeping landslide in 1980 (the start of the Reagan era).
To follow this path once more, even under current circumstances, was the only choice McCain could realistically make.