John McCain isn't dead in the water. But he sure is dying. He lost the debate and the polls are dismal. Gallup has him down 50-42. Rasmussen has Obama ahead 50-44. And both polls are only partially after the debate. Obama won the debate. When the polls come in fully after the debate, the picture won't get any prettier for those of us who favor McCain.
His gambit of suspending his campaign and going to Washington has failed because he did not think it through adequately or correlate it with what was happening in Congress. The Republicans teed up a perfect shot for him. He took the bat but went back to the dugout without even swinging. McCain should have gone into the debate challenging Obama on his $700 billion taxpayer bailout of financial institutions. He should have pushed the Republican alternative. He could have said, plain and simple, that Obama wants to make Americans pay for $700 billion in bad mortgages and McCain wants to make businesses pay for their own bailout through loans and insurance premiums. It would have been a straight shot. But McCain copped out and mumbled something about the deal being the "end of the beginning" and said he hoped to vote for the bailout. It was a failure that may have cost him his best shot at the presidency.
But not his only shot. McCain can still win.
He needs to deploy the tax issue. His campaign has to stop the scattershot web ads and focus instead on a sustained attack on Obama's plans for tax increases. Stop the pinpricks and go for the jugular. It is only through the tax issue that McCain can win this campaign.
Voters understand that our economy is vulnerable and teetering on the brink of a black hole. McCain needs to capitalize on this new sense of vulnerability and hammer away at the Obama tax proposals. He needs to say that our system is starving for capital. Raising capital gains taxes, much less doubling it as Obama proposed during the primaries (but now is trying to backtrack), is like taxing water in the desert. McCain has to talk about Obama's spending proposals and mock the idea that he can spend a trillion and still give "95% of Americans" a tax increase.
McCain should take a page out of the playbook of the endgame of the Bush 1992 campaign. With Bill Clinton holding a solid lead, Bush was reluctant to attack him for his record of tax increases, especially given his violation of his 1988 "read my lips" pledge not to raise taxes. So the campaign sent Vice President Dan Quayle out to attack Clinton, day after day, for raising taxes. And the results were clear in the polls. Bush gained each day and, four days before Election Day, Bush took a lead over Clinton in the tracking polls. Clinton was saved by the announcement by Iran Contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh that he was planning to indict Cap Weinberger, Bush's Defense Secretary. Clinton surged ahead and won the election. But the tax issue had almost reversed his lead in the polls.
If McCain pounds away at taxes, taxes, taxes he can still win this election. By tying the Obama tax plans to the possibility of massive depression, he can pull this out.
Remember: Whenever we raised taxes amidst a downturn, we triggered a massive falloff. It was the tax increases of the early 30s that worsened the Great Depression and it was Bush's 1990 tax increase that created the 1991 recession that cost him his job. America understands that we can't raise taxes now. American grasps that Obama will not just raise taxes on a handful of rich people but will raise them on everybody. And we understand that Obama has no real answer to this charge. McCain just needs to begin to make this central attack his campaign theme from now on.