[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
John McCain is not as dumb as those of us on the left want to believe. So don't think his comment yesterday that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" was a gaffe. I don't believe it was. I think he knew exactly what he was saying.
McCain has campaigned using unbelievably transparent lies, making sleazy and wacky assertions that nobody in their right mind would believe. (A list of criticisms of McCain's ads can be found here, and an Obama commercial also did a good job of showing how low McCain has stooped in his attacks.) And yet the strategy gave McCain a bump in the polls. He then picked an unaccomplished, inexperienced, scandal-dominated, less-than-exceptionally-intelligent candidate to be his running mate, even drawing fire from Republican pundits, and it gave him an even bigger bump in the polls.
And now, on the day that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America, and AIG moved to restructure itself, McCain told an audience that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." (And Barack Obama responded with a well-done television ad that nails McCain for his apparently tone-deaf statement.)
Yes, I understand that, factually, McCain was wrong. The "fundamentals of the economy" are generally accepted to refer to figures like growth, inflation and unemployment, none of which are especially encouraging right now. Growth has been glacial, unemployment is at its highest rate in five years, and the actual buying power of middle-class families has dropped since Bush took office.
No, as much as McCain's claim was incorrect, I believe that like the lie-filled attacks on Obama and the choice of Sarah Palin, McCain's affirmation that things are rosy with the nation's finances was a move that, on the surface, looks ludicrous, but, in practice, helps him accomplish his goal of getting elected to the presidency.
How can that be? Easy. It talks directly, in not-too-subtle terms, to the needs of two audiences he has to mollify. First, it tells financial conservatives that he's their guy. That despite any rhetoric he may have to espouse in the coming weeks, in the end, he will do nothing to rein in the complete freedom and absence of regulation that the financial industry has enjoyed under the administration of George W. Bush. After all, Obama is pointing to the banking crisis as a big problem that will require the government to reinstitute some regulation, the last thing the financial institutions want. By indicating that the current troubles on Wall Street are not such a big deal (since, as McCain is claiming, the "fundamentals of our economy are strong"), he is telling the powers-that-be in the financial industry to relax with the knowledge that he has no intention of changing the (lack of) rules they are currently enjoying.
Second, McCain's statement on the economy was meant to win over undecided voters. As I discussed in my article last week on the behavior of the American electorate, one of the reasons that undecided voters are moving to McCain rather than Obama is because of a change in the culture that no longer has citizens willing to sacrifice. Obama is out there telling the electorate the truth, making the point that the economy isn't working for most working- and middle-class families, and that the energy situation requires changing habits and a large-scale solution rather than stop-gap fixes.
McCain, on the other hand, is the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" candidate. He's telling U.S. citizens that things are fine, we can drill for our own oil, and we really don't have to make any major changes to our way of doing things. Oh, and we're going to win in Iraq, too! So what if nothing McCain is saying is backed up by the facts or based in reality? He's pitching a feel-good message. It's like he's saying, "Don't listen to that pessimistic, America-hating elitist with the Ivy League education telling you America isn't great. You know America is great. We don't have to change anything. Things are fine. Just go about living your life, and I'll take care of everything. After all, I'm a war hero and I was in a POW camp for five years."
If a voter is willing to plunge his or her head into the sand, ostrich style, and ignore the realities of the failing economy, the energy crisis and global warming, well, then McCain's message is very uplifting.
And that is where his statement on the economy comes in. It gives these undecided voters a chance to buy into McCain's "it's all all right" mantra. "Don't worry about the unemployment, foreclosures and failing banks. The fundamentals are strong. We don't need Obama telling us to sacrifice. That guy is a downer. McCain says the fundamentals are strong and we can keep doing what we want."
As long as the culture of the American electorate is such that it is willing to be swayed by outright lies and smears, and as long as voters take a me-first (ironic, given McCain's completely bogus "country first" slogan), I-don't-want-to-change approach to choosing a candidate, McCain's "gaffes" will only help him attract voters.
Considering the GOP's success in the 2000 and 2004 elections, despite everything that was going in favor of the Democrats in both races, and considering that many of the same folks who ran Bush's campaigns are in place for McCain's current run for the White House, it would be foolish to think that McCain's strategies and statements are as dumb as we would like to think. And the Obama campaign should not assume that swing voters will hold McCain accountable for his actions.
Sure it's remarkably out-of-touch to claim that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong." But if it attracts voters, McCain's statement will have done its job.