Two weeks after the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., John McCain and Sarah Palin were striding forward toward victory.
They had erased the eight-point lead Barack Obama had opened up in Denver and watched as one blue state after another moved into the toss-up category.
That is ancient history now.
Since mid-September, the stock market has cratered, losing half of the $8 trillion that has vanished since October 2007. All five of America’s great investment banks — Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill-Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — have either ceased to be independent or ceased to be.
The nation’s largest savings and loan, Washington Mutual, and largest insurance company, AIG, have gone belly up, with the federal bailout of the latter costing $100 billion and counting. Perhaps $3 trillion of the $8 trillion in stock value that is gone disappeared after passage of the $700 billion federal bailout of Wall Street.
No bottom is in sight to the worst market crash since 1929. Recession is now certain. George W. Bush has fallen to 26 percent approval, a level unseen since Richard Nixon was driven from office in the Watergate summer of ’74. Four in five think the nation is on the wrong course.
Yet, Obama has only a six-point lead in an averaging of national polls. While he has moved ahead in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, one senses America is not so much rallying to him as running away from a Republican brand that is now on the same shelf with Chinese baby formula.
Obama still has not closed the sale. He has overtaken McCain not because of any brilliant campaign he has conducted but because of the dreadful news pouring out of Wall Street. McCain and Palin are being dragged down by Dow Jones, not Barack Obama.
As of today, the country is not so much voting for Barack and the Democrats as it is preparing to vote against the Republicans.
Consider: The Congress, whose Democratic ranks the nation is getting ready to enlarge — the Congress led by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — has an approval rating half that of Bush.
Indeed, looking back on the Year of Barack, 2008, it is clear he has never closed the sale, either with the people or his own party.
After he came off the blocks with a startling triumph in Iowa and ran up a dozen straight primary and caucus victories in February, arrived the spring when Hillary, though Obama’s media auxiliary was ordering her to get out, defeated him in Texas, crushed him in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and humiliated him in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Each time the voters take a long second look at Barack, their positive first impressions seem to dissipate. Barack is a weak closer.
Herein lies McCain’s hope. The country wants change, but it has not concluded it wants Obama. But if John McCain cannot raise grave doubts about his agenda, his associates, his record, his character, his fitness to be president, Obama is going to win by default.
Obama has succeeded in the debates by playing defense. By his cool demeanor and persona, he has diminished apprehensions about an Obama presidency. There is no evidence of surging enthusiasm.
The Obama media are well aware of Obama’s Achilles’ heel, his great vulnerability, the doubts about him that still exist in the public mind. That is why they are near hysterical about Palin’s ripping of Obama for “palling around” with “domestic terrorists” like William Ayres, the 1960s and 1970s Weatherman radical who conspired to bomb the Capitol and Pentagon and was quoted the morning of 9-11 as saying he wished he had set off more bombs.
The mainstream media call this irrelevant, as it was so long ago.
Yet, can one imagine how the media would have reacted had they learned that a GOP presidential nominee was introduced to politics and worked in harness with a KKK bomber of black churches in the 1960s, who was quoted the morning of Oklahoma City as saying he wished he had planted more bombs?
As McCain is an establishment man on illegal aliens, NAFTA and Wall Street bailouts, uneasy with social issues like affirmative action and abortion, he lacks the full panoply of weapons that successful Republicans like Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bush II used to win two terms. He seems to confine himself to the limited arsenal Gerald Ford, Bush 1 and Bob Dole employed when they went down to defeat.
This election is not over. Yet, even if McCain gets a bit of luck, a dead cat bounce on Wall Street, he must persuade the nation Obama is an unacceptable occupant of the White House if he is to win.
Palin appears ready to take the heat to make that case. But McCain seems ambivalent to the point of being bipolar on whether he wants to take responsibility for peeling the hide off Barack Obama.
Perhaps it comes down to what McCain really thinks about an Obama presidency, and how he wants to be remembered by history.