This week is nothing less than a three-ring political circus, what with digesting the implications of last week's presidential debate, Monday's House rejection of the financial rescue plan and the vice presidential debate Thursday night between Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Alaskan Republican Gov. Sarah Palin. Not much in the last year has been predictable, so in some ways this week doesn't stand out that much.
No question this rescue package, or "bailout" in the popular vernacular, is a big ugly beast, a hard baby to love, whether one is on the left, right or in the middle. No one likes it and no one wants to be in this position.
On a substantive level, this one is tough, and every time the pejorative term "bailout" is used, it puts a thumb on the scale. No one likes the idea of a bailout, unless of course one is in a lifeboat taking on water. Then bailing out seems to make a lot of sense.
Unfortunately, the economy seems to be heading into a recession and the credit markets in particular, whether on Wall Street, Main Street or Maple Street, are in that lifeboat -- with a lot of water pouring in.
Unless there is an intervening event or set of circumstances that shifts the focus onto national security, it's hard to see how this race moves in McCain's direction.
For members of Congress, the question would seem to be whether it would be easier to explain and defend a vote in favor of a proposal that no one likes, or to explain and defend the consequences of not getting something done quickly.
With an estimated $1.2 trillion of wealth, much of it retirement savings, wiped out Monday, the consequences of delay or inaction would seem to be obvious. Arguably the cost has already been greater than the total potential liability of the package.
Toward the middle or end of the month, as Election Day grows nearer, most households will receive their retirement plan statements and perhaps other mutual fund statements. What they see is going to be ugly.
These are not going to be fun times for those people who have recently retired and now have to go back to work, or for those who had planned to retire over the next year or two who now can't, or those who will not be able to get credit or will have to pay more to borrow money for a college education, car, home or home improvements. The question is: Who will be in a better position to defend their actions?
Perhaps the best way to characterize Friday's presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., is to say that there wasn't a winner or loser but there was a beneficiary. To be sure, neither Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., nor Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., knocked out the other, nor did either make a memorable mistake. Indeed there wasn't much memorable at all. Already the focus has shifted to Thursday night's Biden-Palin matchup.
So if neither candidate won or lost, did one benefit? Yes.
With foreign policy McCain's strong suit and the thinnest part of Obama's resume, this was McCain's big chance to shine and Obama's to stumble. But Obama went into that debate with a lead and seems to have come out with a lead, so this debate doesn't seem to be the game-changer McCain needed.
More to the point, McCain really needed Obama to simply not measure up on national security. And yet, focus and dial groups conducted during and immediately after the debate showed that while the candidates' overall standings changed little, if any, with few voters changing their preferences, more thought Obama than McCain "won" the debate. That means it was an opportunity lost for McCain.
Stepping back and looking at the polling data for the last four months reveals that except for a week to 10 days during and after the Republican convention, Obama has held a steady, though hardly wide, lead over McCain. In the Gallup daily tracking poll through Monday night, Obama was at 49 percent and McCain at 43 percent among 2,729 registered voters with a 2-point error margin.
With just over a month to go before the election, obviously a great deal can happen to change things. But the greater attention on the economy and the credit crunch can do nothing but help Obama.
Unless there is an intervening event or set of circumstances that shifts the focus onto national security, it's hard to see how this race moves in McCain's direction. While reservations about Obama and the thinness of his resume effectively prevents this race from becoming a rout, these fundamental forces are prevailing, at least so far.
And as the focus shifts to the Biden-Palin showdown in St. Louis, it amounts to the political equivalent of a NASCAR race, with spectators crowding and viewers tuning in to see if someone gets killed.
Sure, there is a real danger for Palin if she comes across as over her head. Her interview with Katie Couric on CBS just scratches the surface of what a horror show the debate could be for her.
But the challenge for Biden is that he not only has to win the debate, he has to beat a pretty high point spread.
The expectations for Palin are so low and the risk for Biden appearing to be a smart-ass, condescending or sexist is real. He has to show knowledge and experience, a command of the issues and a readiness to be vice president from the first day, all the while not projecting any arrogance or smugness.
So Biden has his risk, but on the other hand, a poor performance by the Alaskan will go to the heart of McCain's judgment. This choice was his and can't be foisted off on staff, colleagues, the media or anyone else. Wild.