Katie Roiphe and Matthew Yglesias on the Financial Crisis’ Upside and Why McCain May Well ‘Win’ Tonight’s Debate

We'll have some of the shit he's eating. 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, Katie Roiphe, the author, most recently, of Uncommon Arrangements, and Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias discuss Sarah Palin's latest attacks on Obama, what the silver lining of the financial meltdown might be, and why McCain will likely be declared the winner of tonight's debate.

K.R.: Given that the world is falling apart, it's kind of a slow news day. What do you think of Sarah Palin's latest attack on Obama?

M.Y.: She seems to be continuing in the pattern of audaciously making stuff up that she started with the "bridge to nowhere" nonsense … my guess is that people are going to be more interested in the whole world-is-falling-apart issue.

K.R.: One hopes. Though it seems this is a variation on the tried-and-true Republican attack on "card-carrying liberals." Her "left-wing agenda" may have the same resonance, who knows? I guess I'm just jittery about what looks like a pretty solid lead.

M.Y.: I'm feeling pretty confident about the election at this point. My problem is more that having spent a week feeling happy about an economic crisis giving Obama a big boost, over the past 48 hours I'm realizing that an economic crisis is actually pretty terrifying. After all, I'm not sure that political punditry counts as a marketable skill in a downturn.

K.R.: You are probably right. But I have to admit that I am hopeful for a silver lining here. My nephew, who is a junior in college and interned at a hedge fund this summer, was planning to be an investment banker, and I just heard that he wrote an article in the Harvard Crimson about how this economic disaster should open up possibilities for his generation, how they should stop seeing the whole goal of life as earning money … maybe our insanely materialistic culture needs some correction.

M.Y.: It will be nice to see some of the incredible mystique and prestige attached to the financial industry stripped away. And I can't help but feel some Schadenfreude at the idea of some of these jerks working "in finance" who I was chatting with back in May at my college reunion being brought low. Still, somehow I expect that the top dogs will make it through this okay and struggling people are going to see their lives get even worse.

K.R.: I am sure you are right about that. And it is not those hedge-fund guys who will be losing their lofts in Tribeca … and yet, I do think that there is something decadent about our culture, something money-obsessed that has to and will change.

M.Y.: It's apparently not actually true that the Chinese word for "crisis" combines the characters for "danger" and "opportunity," but it's become a cliché because there is some real truth to that, and I do hope that maybe something good will come out of this. At a minimum, some better understanding, both socially and politically, of how much economic success or failure is just due to dumb luck.

K.R.: I hope tonight's debate takes up some of these questions. Not the larger existential possibilities of economic crisis, but the economy in general. I noticed predictions that McCain will be electrified by the presence of an audience. I would be surprised. I have never seen McCain electrified by anything.

M.Y.: The theory that McCain is good in town-hall settings has always mystified me. In the footage I've seen, he seems to wander around the stage aimlessly mumbling and stepping on his own punch lines. If anything, he'll be electrified by the specter of his sagging poll numbers. He does seem to get feistier when faced with the prospect of losing.

K.R.: I think there is also the need for a news story, and Obama is very poised and his lead is not an interesting news story. In a way the only thing that can happen from the commentators' point of view is McCain Loses His Temper or McCain Electrifies Audience.

M.Y.: It's better for the news biz if the race returns to being a nail-biter, so I kind of suspect that McCain will be proclaimed the winner no matter what happens.

K.R.: I am also curious about this audience of "undecided voters." I mean, at this point who is undecided? What exactly is unclear about the issues? I wonder sometimes if people don't pretend to be undecided because that is the position of power: Persuade me! Woo me!

M.Y.: I do think there's a lot of research indicating that most people who say they're undecided actually have pretty clear leanings. And, of course, if I knew that pretending to be undecided might help me get to ask a question in a debate, I'd gladly lie.

K.R.: Somehow, also, all this indecision, all of these forums with undecided voters, foreground how depressing the democratic process is in practice. The idea, I admit, is exquisite, beautiful, but in practice? These undecided voters like Sarah Palin's use of the word "doggone it" or they think McCain looks old. When you see these so-called undecided voters making their decisions, you see the thought process. And I think, maybe there is another system that works better?

M.Y.: Well, despite all the noise and absurdity on an individual level, the overall trend seems to be that when the situation gets bad, people throw out the incumbents. That's not really such a terrible thing. Maybe the next president will look at Bush's current approval ratings and decide he'd better try to not screw everything up.

K.R.: I guess one has to place hope in the rationality of the system. It isn't the frightening spectacle of one guy in Ohio describing how he would like to have a beer with one of the candidates. It is the general effect, and maybe people will vote sanely on the end of the world, who knows?

M.Y.: I sure hope whoever gets put in charge of forestalling the end of the world in January knows what he or she is doing.

Earlier: James Fallows and Katie Roiphe on Sarah Palin Winking Her Way Through the Debate

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.