In the excitement and decisiveness of Barack Obama's victory, we forget that in the first weeks of September, John McCain was actually ahead. Then Lehman collapsed, and the financial system went off a cliff.
This was not just a meltdown but a panic. For an agonizing few days, there was a collapse of faith in the entire financial system -- a run on banks, panicky money-market withdrawals, flights to safety, the impulse to hide one's savings under a mattress.This did not just have the obvious effect of turning people against the incumbent party, however great or tenuous its responsibility for the crisis. It had the more profound effect of making people seek shelter in government.
After all, if even Goldman Sachs was getting government protection, why not you? And offering the comfort and safety of government is the Democratic Party's vocation. With a Republican White House having partially nationalized the banks and just about everything else, McCain's final anti-Obama maneuver -- Joe the Plumber spread-the-wealth charges of socialism -- became almost comical.
We don't yet appreciate how unprecedented were the events of September and October. We have never had a full-fledged financial panic in the middle of a presidential campaign. Consider. If the S&P were to close at the end of the year where it did on Election Day, it will have suffered this year its steepest drop since 1937. That is 71 years.
At the same time, the economy had suffered nine consecutive months of job losses. Considering the carnage to both capital and labor (which covers just about everybody), even a Ronald Reagan could not have survived. The fact that John McCain got 46 percent of the electorate when 75 percent said the country was going in the wrong direction is quite remarkable.
This is not to say that McCain made no errors. His suspension of the campaign during the economic meltdown was a long shot that not only failed, it created the McCain-the-erratic meme that deeply undermined his huge advantage over Obama in perception of leadership.
The choice of Sarah Palin was also a mistake. I'm talking here about its political effects, not the sideshow psychodrama of feminist rage and elite loathing that had little to do with politics and everything to do with cultural prejudices, resentments and affectations.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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