What Should McCain Do?

Okay, smart guy, you might say: If the Ayers-related attacks on Obama have limited utility, and attacking bad guys in Washington and Wall Street isn't much help either, then what should John McCain be doing?

Six words: Aggressive pandering to the middle class. I'm going to take a page from John Podhoretz here, who wrote:

The world's financial and economic realities are not what they were three weeks ago. This affords McCain the chance of rebooting his campaign, to re-engineer his economic policy proposals in light of a prospective recession. I am only a political observer here, not an economist, so I don't know what that rebooting would or could consist of. But a substantive gamble by McCain, one in which he attempts to change the tone and spirit of the last three weeks by introducing a new approach to a time of crisis, offers the possibility of a new focus to the presidential race -- a focus that would allow McCain not merely to spend the next month trying to sow doubts about Obama but also to inspire the sense that McCain is looking forward and has something positive to contribute that will ameliorate the tough times ahead.

Frankly, McCain has done such a lousy job selling the domestic policy proposals he's put forward that he's more or less free to change them however he wants at this point. It would have been better if he had changed them dramatically and publicly on Monday, after the bailout passed and the market kept tanking, but before the debate itself. But the next time the stock market has a really bad day (i.e., tomorrow), he should "huddle with his advisers" and announce that in light of the epic crisis, he's going to postpone his entire domestic agenda (such as it is) for, say, two years in favor of a short-term but expensive stimulus package aimed directly at the middle and working class. Last night's "homeownership resurgence plan" - which was the best pander he's produced since the financial crisis started - could be part of this package, but it should take a back seat to a proposal for short-term and substantial middle-class tax relief. The crisis is taking money out of people's pockets; McCain should promise to put a lot of money right back into them, and to do so immediately, with as large a tax rebate as he thinks he can propose without the media laughing him to scorn. And at the same time, he should promise that every dollar the federal government earns off the bailout, every dollar saved from cutting earmarks, and every dollar saved as we draw down into Iraq, will go directly into some other pander-iffic proposal - like, say, an emergency relief fund for retirees whose 401(k)s have lost more than some specific percentage of their value in the last month. Wrap it all in a bow, call it a "Bailout for Main Street," and put as much energy into selling it as they've put into trying to rebrand Barack Obama as radical, vacuous, unready to lead. (And yes, they can still talk about Ayers, too.)

Is this cynical and opportunistic? Sure. Would it please the conservative intelligentsia? Quite possibly not. Would it look like just another desperation move, one that undercuts McCain's spending-hawk brand and gets mocked roundly in the press? Quite possibly. But John McCain is running to succeed the most unpopular President in modern history, in what is quite possibly the most politically-hostile environment a Republican has faced since the Great Depression, and in the midst of the worst financial crisis since, well, the Great Depression. And while four weeks of aggressive pandering to the middle class probably wouldn't win him this election, it's a strategy that has the virtue of actually addressing itself to the massive, massive anxieties that Americans are experiencing at the moment, as opposed to addressing itself to issues that voters, I suspect, perceive as tangential at best.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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