Ever since Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic announcement of a Vietnam “bombing pause” two weeks before the 1968 election, the phrase “October Surprise” has been a staple of our political vocabulary. Other examples of last-minute political hand grenades that influenced close elections include Lawrence Walsh’s indictment of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger in 1992, and the leaking of George W. Bush’s youthful DUI in 2000. Most October surprises are entirely “man-made”, but a few have been wholly unanticipated external events that by their nature spelled bad news for one Presidential candidate and conversely good news for his opponent e.g. The Iranian Hostage Crisis that more than anything else doomed Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980.
If anyone ever compiles a history of these phenomena the Great Financial Meltdown of 2008 will surely be cited as the “Mother of All October (or September) Surprises”. In just a matter of days this event unleashed a political tsunami that transformed John McCain’s slight lead in the polls into a double digit deficit. It blew McCain’s very best issue-“Who do you Trust to be Commander-in-Chief”- right off the table and replaced it with the tailor-made for Obama issue of “Who Do you Trust to Fix this Economic Catastrophe”.
There is a segment of the American electorate who short of a 9/11 or Pearl Harbor find foreign and military policy either too complex or too remote to think much about.
Another segment similarly disdains issues of character or values because they believe that tolerance is the only virtue that counts.
There is however one issue-Money- that gets big time attention from every segment of the electorate. Things like personal financial security, comfortable retirement, 401Ks, money market funds, stocks and bonds, and losing your house and/or your job are absolutely riveting issues for almost every American and they will drive far more votes than who’s doing what in the mountains of Pakistan, whether Sunnis and Shias are hugging in Iraq, who’s running Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or almost anything else you can name.
All Americans know that something really, really bad is happening to their country. Not surprisingly they want to know who to blame for this mess. Unfortunately for Republicans the Flying Fickle Finger of Fate is pointing much more at them than Democrats.
McCain and Obama are competing to see who can more vigorously denounce greed and corruption on Wall Street. Well, who are these sneaky, selfish, conniving fat cats? Why, they’re almost all Republicans, right?
Both candidates also agree that much blame belongs in Washington. Well, who’s in charge down there? Why, it’s that Republican President, that Bush! He screwed up in Iraq, and now he’s wrecked our economy! It must be true. It’s in all the papers. Hey, Katie Couric wouldn’t lie to us!
So, Harry says to Louise “I wasn’t sure about that Obama guy, but we really need to change things. This scary stuff has got to stop”.
It’s too much to expect Harry and Louise to figure out the role of Chris Dodd or Barney Frank in all of this and the mainstream media certainly isn’t going to tell them. They probably remember the catchy names “Fannie and Freddie” but they wouldn’t know what they’re all about. Few can recite the legislative and other pressures from Democrats over many years to grant mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them.
Any time a poor and/or minority person couldn’t get a mortgage, hypocritical Democrats howled that the only reason was the racism of coldhearted greedy Republican bankers. The media echo chamber amplified this monstrous slander, and intimidated Republicans ran for cover rather than standing up and calling the question on this runaway fiscal disaster in the making that more than any one thing is at the root of the current financial calamity.
The game changing “Panic of ‘08” could have happened in ’07 or ’09, but it didn’t.
The old Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez famously said “I’d rather be lucky than good”. John McCain- embodying the best values and traditions of our history- is a good man. Barack Obama-shallow in experience, suspect in associations, dissembling in both promises and explanations- is a lucky man.
Only when the effects of the October Economic Revolution and the concomitant November election ripple through the months and years ahead will we know whether America the Good can be America the Lucky as well. ------------------------------- William Moloney’s columns have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News