Why The Economy Might Benefit McCain

When asked which party can best handle the economy, voters give Democrats a twenty point advantage over Republicans. Consequently, the timing of the Wall Street collapse would seem to boost Democratic candidate Barack Obama's popularity. Not so, according to Slate.com chief political correspondent John Dickerson.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

BRAND: You'd think that the financial meltdown on Wall Street would be a campaign opportunity for Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama, not necessarily so, says slate.com's chief political correspondent John Dickerson. John's here now. And John, why can't Barack Obama capitalize on this crisis? And why can he pin it all on the Bush administration and on Republicans and therefore, John McCain, too?

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Political Correspondent, Slate.com): Well, he may well yet be able to do all of those things, but there's some obstacles because you should think that he would be able to run the score up on McCain on this question.

I mean, if you look at the polls, a generic Democrat beats a generic Republican by 20 points in the polls when you ask voters who they want to take care of the economy for them or who they think can handle the issues of the economy. But Barack Obama only beats John McCain by about 5 points.

That's a shrinking of the margin. Why has that happened? It's because McCain has been able to offer some specifics, particularly on gas prices, drilling being one of them, that have captured voters' imagination for the moment. And so the challenge for Obama really is to offer voters something that they can say, you know, this will help me in my daily life. And that's what he's trying to do this week.

BRAND: What about the criticism yesterday from the Obama campaign of John McCain for saying that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are essentially strong now. John McCain had to back off that yesterday after being heavily criticized by the Obama campaign. Let's listen to vice presidential candidate Joe Biden this morning on NBC Today.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; 2008 Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee): Who has been at the helm the last 8 years? What policies have caused this? We're a trillion dollars in debt to the Chinese and the foreign banks. We have a 400 billion dollar deficit on this administration's watch.

BRAND: John Dickerson, those sound like fighting words. And how much mileage is the Obama campaign getting out of this?

Mr. DICKERSON: They are fighting words, and it's a good, you know, sort of first step for any candidate. They've got - they can point to the fact that McCain doesn't have much legislation to back any of the promises he's now making about how to fix this mess, that he was part of the group sort of standing on the sidelines while no regulations were put in place and while all of these troubles were brewing. And now, they need to say, and here's how we're going to fix it, and that's what Barack Obama's trying to do today in his speeches and throughout the week.

BRAND: And he's talked a lot about tax cuts for the middle class. Why hasn't that gotten more traction?

Mr. DICKERSON: Obama has talked about tax cuts. He would cut taxes basically for - his plans are to cut taxes for anybody earning less than 250 thousand dollars. McCain, however, has been successful in some measure in reframing, shall we say, distorting, the Obama folks would say, Obama's positions and say he's going to raise taxes.

Of the two candidates, McCain would certainly tax - cut taxes more than Obama would, but then you run into problems or questions about what that would do to the budget. McCain's tax cuts are so large that all budget experts say that they would create an enormous fiscal nightmare.

BRAND: OK. Let's hear John McCain. He's fighting back today on the morning talk shows. Here he is on CNBC.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee): Well, I think everybody's at fault here, the Bush administration, Republicans, and Democrats. And we need to find out exactly what we need to do, and that's why I think maybe we ought to have a 9/11 commission type thing because this crisis is very serious, and very much - certainly a threat to our economy.

BRAND: OK. So that doesn't really sound like the fundamentals are strong. A 9/11 commission?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, this is what politicians often do when they want to look like they're doing something, but not actually do anything. Now, to be fair to Senator McCain, nobody has any quick fixes for this, and the issues at the heart of the financial problems we're going through are quite complicated.

But this is a problem both campaigns have, which is that there isn't a lot they can come forward with to offer voters to help them with what's happening in their lives and what they see happening around them.

BRAND: So who is on the offensive here?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, both campaigns on the offensive in different ways. They both want to look like they empathize with peoples' difficulties and that they get it. And so that's why McCain was quick - so quick to try and clean up, as they say, his remarks yesterday, in which he suggested the fundamentals of the economy were strong.

He's even trying to flip it and say, well, I was talking about the strength of the American worker, putting Obama on the defensive, making Obama seem as if he somehow against the American worker, which he, obviously, is not.

So they're both sort of trying to look empathetic, look like they've got solutions, even though they don't really have them, and blame the other guy for the mess we're in and hope, after all that phonetic activity, they get a little bit of an advantage.

BRAND: Chief political correspondent for slate.com, John Dickerson. Thanks, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thanks.

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