Crazy time

What to make of the McCain-Palin bounce?

Published September 9, 2008 4:44PM (EDT)

Democrats traumatized by the surreal losses in 2000 and 2004 feel like it's déjà vu all over again, with the sudden surge of John McCain and Sarah Palin in the polls. It's like a bad dream: Even the Obama fundraising juggernaut is stumbling, according to the New York Times, missing its internal targets and having to push harder for cash. Meanwhile, white women have flocked to the ticket with the white female vice president; according to the most recent ABC News poll, Barack Obama had an 8-point lead among white women voters last week; now he's trailing McCain by 12, a 20-point swing in one week.

And even as journalists do their job and report the cracks in Palin's "reformer" façade, she continues to repeat absolute falsehoods, like the one about how she fought Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere," when in fact she supported it until it was already killed. She repeated her claim again today. Truth is taking a beating as she and McCain recast themselves as change agents and reformers, when they're both so close to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, on every issue that matters, that you can't see daylight between them.

I understand why Democrats are panicking, but this too shall pass.

I'm not saying Obama is certain to win; he's not. But the way Palin is dazzling the crowds can't last. In a way, she is, as Republicans brag, Barack Obama's counterpart -- a bold new figure with a compelling biography who energizes the base and even gets a look-see from swing voters, independents and curiosity seekers in the other party. But after they've had a good look, most will move back to Obama.

Or they're almost certain to go back to Obama if he gives them a reason to.

Stunned by the Palin pick, the Obama-Biden ticket has seemed lifeless this week. The normally sharp Joe Biden was completely off his game on "Meet the Press." And after saying he wouldn't attack Palin, Obama himself began attacking her this week -- a role that should be reserved for Biden and surrogates.

Maybe most troubling, whenever I see Obama or Biden in speech snippets on television, they're spending far too much time outlining the grim troubles of our economy and too little time telling voters what they'd do about it. The best digest I've seen or heard of the stark contrast between McCain and Obama on the so-called kitchen-table issues came not from Obama but from John Harwood in the New York Times Monday. "The principal elements of Mr. McCain's economic agenda on taxes, trade, regulation and health care follow the philosophic outlines of a deeply unpopular Bush administration," Harwood wrote. "In offering new, immediate economic benefits, Mr. Obama has far outbid his Republican adversary." That message isn't getting through to voters right now, in part because of the Palin buzz, but also because Obama isn't articulating it as clearly as he can, and should.

Watching Obama's press conference Tuesday morning, I found myself thinking the Democrat needs some sleep -- and maybe a speech coach. I know, that sounds ridiculous given what a great orator he is. But in these short sessions with reporters, and even sometimes on the stump, he's strangely rambling and indirect. There are too many "ums" and "you knows" and long preambles. Asked a question about Palin stealing his thunder with her star power and biography, his answer began:

"You know, uh uh, I guess, uh uh, one of the benefits of running a 19-month race, we've been through twists and turns." He went on and on with that preamble, and I found myself tuning out the rest of his answer.

Let's be honest, John McCain and the GOP declared full-on culture war when they picked Christian-right darling Palin over McCain's choice, Joe Lieberman. And it's working, for now. But while reporters continue to dig in Palin's Alaska backyard -- and there are a lot of reporters, and a lot to report about, up there -- Obama, Biden and other Democratic surrogates have to hammer home their answers to the economic turmoil that's putting many voters' dreams at risk. Palin's glow will fade, much like Obama's did, and people will go back to looking for solutions, not a superstar. It's time for Obama to show he has them.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections