I've been hearing something new in my Obama campaign calls: deep skepticism about John McCain's mental and emotional competence. For a week or so I didn't make any calls--work deadlines, sick kid, some issues with my dad's medical care--and when I came back to them yesterday I sensed a shift in the people I was talking to. Nothing scientific about this, of course...but the older Republican guy in Ohio who sighed and said he was leaning toward Obama because "I just don't think McCain's head is all right anymore" and the Obama supporter who laughed and asked if we couldn't "put McCain out of his misery" didn't sound like anyone I'd spoken to before. And it fits with what I'm seeing myself, and with what the polls are finding. Sometime in the past couple of weeks McCain crossed a threshhold that I don't think he can get back over. This isn't just about political philosophies now, or even personalities or styles of campaigning. To everyone but the most loyal conservatives (and, I'll bet we'll discover after the election's over, a lot of them) McCain's starting to look like a nut. And once people think you've lost it, how do you show them you haven't?
I think what's happened in just the last two days shows how wildly McCain is fishtailing, and how hard it is for him to change the way we perceive him without seeming to be merely jerking the wheel back the other way. After his last campaign strategy--William Ayers, the mortgage bail-out--was obviously going nowhere, McCain holed up for the weekend with a bunch of economists and advisors and announced he was going to come out of it with a new economic plan and a new direction for his campaign. "This will be the turning point!" cried his campaign operatives. But what he came out with yesterday morning was just another pep-rally speech. America needs a fighter, I never gave up when I was a POW, the media's against us, siss-boom-bah. Joe Biden immediately attacked him for saying nothing new. A couple of hours later, Barack Obama rolled out his own new economic plan--specific and wide-ranging and promising.
Today McCain finally unveiled that economic plan. Not a lot new to it, except some retirement-fund changes aimed at seniors, but it was something. But then--as if it weren't hard enough already to compete with the attention given to Obama's plan and the poll numbers and his angry followers and Palin's latest overstatements--he gave an interview to a radio station. The interviewer asked him about what Joe Biden had said after the last debate, questioing McCain's guts for not confronting Obama with the Ayers issue. And McCain responded that Biden's remarks "ensured" he was going to bring Ayers at tomorrow's debate. Immediately the news cycle turned away from the kind-of-new economic plan and became about Ayers again. And McCain came off looking like an insecure neighborhood tough, unable to resist a dare.
Then came the final blow: the New York Times/CBS News poll showing that McCain has not only fallen further behind Obama than ever (a landslide margin, 14%) but that his negative campaign, including the Ayers baiting, has hurt him badly with voters. That 61% of voters think he spends too much time attacking instead of talking about issues. That for the first time, his "disapproval" rating has passed his "approval" rating. So here's John McCain on the eve of his final debate, his last chance, walking around with a promise to slap Obama with the Ayers stick. He's boxed himself into a corner: he can reach for a campaign trick that the polls show is disastrous for him; or he can look like a weasel.
I've never seen a more self-destructive candidate, a candidate who makes so many preposterous, avoidable blunders. It's a display of basic incompetence that's scary, and funny, and really kind of sad. And what I'm picking up lately from the phone and the polls is that it isn't just Obama supporters who see him this way. I think a lot of people who would normally have supported the Republican candidate are starting to look forward to November 4th as the day when the election puts John out of his misery.