Byron York and Craig Unger on McCain’s Quagmire

"You give 'gov' a bad name."
"You give 'gov' a bad name." Photo: Getty Images

Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, National Review's Byron York and Craig Unger, author, most recently, of The Fall of the House of Bush, discuss McCain's challenge at tonight's debate, whether the race holds any surprises, and how Obama resembles Bush in his response to the financial crisis.

B.Y.: What's your take on tonight's debate?

C.U.: The Wall Street meltdown has been so devastating that it IS the central narrative right now, and I don't see that McCain can really change it.

B.Y.: I agree that the economy will have to dominate, and I'm sure that's what McCain's debate-prep people feel, too. Personally, I thought McCain won the first two debates — the first one by a wide margin and the second one just barely. But clearly, the polls show that people saw Obama as more and more a plausible president, so the debates have done Obama much more good than McCain. Given the big intervention plans that both men have laid out, I'm not sure what advantage McCain can claim tonight.

C.U.: Until the economic crisis, I had thought Obama was quite vulnerable. He really had not won over the Reagan Democrats in swing states like Ohio and was even weak in Pennsylvania. Until then, I thought McCain could have had an opportunity to redefine Obama. But since the meltdown, the polls seem to have swung overwhelmingly toward Obama, and I think McCain's attacks — the Bill Ayers stuff — are backfiring. It's hard to get upset about links to a sixties radical when a Republican administration is nationalizing the banks.

B.Y.: The McCain people thought that, too. Like everybody else, they noted that Hillary Clinton actually beat Obama in the race from February 19 through June 3. It's just that Obama sewed the thing up in a ten-day period after Super Tuesday, when he won — what was it, ten? — contests in a row. Clinton had no plan after Super Tuesday, and Obama knocked her out while she was trying to find one. On the other hand, after she did, she beat Obama, albeit too late, by pushing the commander-in-chief test, which she claimed Obama had failed miserably, and working-class concerns, which she claimed Obama didn't understand. I think the McCain campaign thought they could do the same thing. And then everything blew up. Now, they're searching for Plan B, or Plan C, or whatever it is. The debates were supposed to help, but so far they haven't.

C.U.: Right. I had not thought Obama was the strongest candidate. But I think the economic crisis has rendered both candidates almost irrelevant. If you watch TV, the only thing you see is the meltdown and occasionally stuff about Sarah Palin. I feel like the decline of American power is almost palpable. If there has been any real leadership in this crisis from any one politician, it has not come from the U.S., but from Gordon Brown. The Republicans' initial blocking of the bailout now smacks of phony populism and I think it has backfired. I have no idea what strategy they will try next. Do you?

B.Y.: No, but I think it's fair to say that nobody else quite knows what to do either. Buy troubled assets? Pour money into banks? Watch the DJIA minute-by-minute? This is where I think Obama's ability to project a sense of calm is quite useful to him. I feel certain that he doesn't really know what to do either, but he can say something to the effect that we need to make our best effort on this and then give it time to work. (Which is exactly what Bush is saying as well.) McCain, in need of a bigger hit, has had to project a greater sense of urgency, but since he doesn't know what to do either, his efforts have sometimes appeared to be a lot of running around.

C.U.: The polls in the Times today were pretty devastating for McCain. And if you compare them to the polls a month ago, the swing has been dramatic. Back then, McCain actually had a lead of about 20 electoral votes — he now is down more than 150. Do you think that's it for the election, or do you think there will be another swing? And assuming Obama wins, do you think he'll have much of a honeymoon?

B.Y.: No, I don't think that's it for the election, only because so many crazy things have been happening with such speed that I'm hesitant to say anything about an event twenty days from now. But it doesn't look good. Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada — those were all states that George W. Bush won in 2004. Will McCain win them all this time? That's extremely hard to see. So he clearly needs some sort of game-changing event. TBA.

C.U.: I know enough people whose 401(k)s have been demolished, or whose retired parents are now really hurt, that I think it is hard to come up with a new event that is powerful enough to really change the game. Before the economic crisis, I had thought national-security events could really swing things in McCain's favor. Russia's invasion of Georgia was — and is — an important event. The Bear is back — and this time it's a petro state! I had thought Obama looked fairly weak in his responses. At first he temporized, then came out with a stronger position. In that context, McCain's linking Obama to Ayers might have raised real doubts about Obama among those ethnic white working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio. But those attacks won't play. Also, Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East are no longer on the radar screen of voters, and I think those were cards McCain might have been able to play.

B.Y.: I agree. McCain won the Republican nomination on the basis of national security, specifically winning in Iraq and aggressively pursuing the war on terror, both of which played better with the GOP primary electorate than the electorate as a whole. When the Georgia thing happened, he did well. But generally, in the general election, he's had to play a different game, one that isn't his strong suit. It's just the way things go.

Earlier: Matt Taibbi and Byron York Butt Heads Over Whether McCain Deserves Blame for the Wall Street Meltdown

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.