When things go bad for a candidate, they go really bad. John McCain was riding high for a week after the GOP convention, but this weekend he began getting beaten up about his dishonest campaign and his terrifyingly unqualified vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin. Then he appeared to be blindsided by the continuing chaos in the financial markets, with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and sale of Merrill Lynch on Monday. First he came out and said, again, that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong," then he changed course and acknowledged it's a "bad economy." And now he's calling for the equivalent of a "9/11 Commission" to look at the mess in the financial markets -- which should frighten anyone who wants to get to the bottom of what happened, and fix it.
Is McCain losing it? Can he really want to invite Americans to look back at the 9/11 Commission? It was widely criticized by 9/11 families for going easy on the Bush administration. Staffed by Condoleezza Rice associate Philip Zelikow, the commission was criticized for accepting double talk from CIA and administration officials -- and yet even Zelikow grew frustrated with his inability to get straight answers to questions. The commission's recommendations were only partly adopted, and earlier this year its bipartisan co-chairmen, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, blasted the Bush White House for obstructing their work, most notably by destroying videotaped interrogations of 9/11 suspects.
This is McCain's big idea for solving the current crisis? A commission? Besides, linking the current mess to 9/11 seems tone-deaf on McCain's part: What Republican would willingly link the worst attack on America soil with one of the worst economic disasters of the century, both of which occurred on George W. Bush's watch? When it comes to the economy, McCain looks as unprepared as Palin did discussing the Bush doctrine with Charles Gibson last week.
Barack Obama has a chance to really make this election about issues, by coming out strong with a package of reforms, and hitting McCain hard at every campaign stop. Obama's speech Tuesday was a great beginning. In policy as well as delivery, he projects an air of confidence that he knows what to do and how to make things better. He was right to slam McCain for, as recently as March, insisting that "I'm always for less regulation," and referring to himself as "fundamentally a deregulator."
What's less clear is whether Obama knows how to break down the issue into smaller chunks, not just give great stump speeches, or smart analyses of what the problem is. He's got to make his solutions real for people in every setting he visits between now and Nov. 4. Today was a good start, but the issue will be with us for a long time.
I'll be on MSNBC's "Race for the White House" with David Gregory Tuesday at 3 p.m. PT/6 p.m. ET, talking about McCain and Obama's response to the financial crisis.