Debating on a night when global markets were tanking, Barack Obama and John McCain engaged in an edgy debate about “spreading the wealth,” “class warfare” and creating an economy that benefits “Joe the Plumber” more than “Ivan the Investment Banker.”
But while McCain clung to the failed fantasies of the past, Obama offered America a community rarely served up on the presidential debate stages of recent campaigns: realism.
Though they differed, at times viscerally, both men were struggling to occupy a populist high ground that suddenly appears far more attractive than the valleys of Wall Street.
The Republican kicked things off by declaring, “Americans are hurting right now, and they’re angry. They’re hurting, and they’re angry. They’re innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C. And they’re angry, and they have every reason to be angry.”
The Democrat echoed the theme. “I think everybody understands at this point that we are experiencing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And the financial rescue plan that Sen. McCain and I supported is an important first step. And I pushed for some core principles: making sure that taxpayer can get their money back if they’re putting money up. Making sure that CEOs are not enriching themselves through this process,” explained Obama. “And I think that it’s going to take some time to work itself out. But what we haven’t yet seen is a rescue package for the middle class. Because the fundamentals of the economy were weak even before this latest crisis.”
Not since 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Teddy Roosevelt and even Republican William Howard Taft all tried to steal some of the thunder of Socialist Eugene Victor Debs have major-party presidential candidates scrambled so furiously to sound populist themes on the cusp of a definitional election.
But behind, beneath and beside the rhetorical flourishes were the evidences of a fundamental difference in approach.
McCain clung to the fading vision of Reaganomics as seen through the lens of George Bush, defaulting again and again to a lexicon of tax cuts for the richest, empty promises of trickle-down prosperity, fantasies of spending freezes and the certainty of deeper deficits and greater dysfunction in a federal government.
For McCain, ultimately, it was all about those tax cuts — for plumber Joe Wurzelbacher in Ohio who wants to start a small business and, though he did not mention it, for corporations that earn more in a quarter than the GDPs of more than a few sovereign nations.