Last week, Main Street received an opportunity to sit in the front seat of the election, thanks to John McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign to go to Washington to help Congress fix the financial meltdown.
Whether that was an admirable decision by a man who once said he "would rather lose an election than a war" or a political stunt to boost his economic muscle, it did accomplish one thing: The rhetoric of both candidates pivoted to Middle America and working families.
Let’s hope it stays there.
Until now, chin-wagging by the political elite and endless e-mails from the campaigns and the national parties have driven the hour’s story.
"Those clowns make it difficult for those elected ultimately to govern, because governing is reality — it isn’t campaigning," says Purdue University political science professor Bert Rockman.
Rockman says a lot of focus has been on the wrong things — sort of like looking at the zookeepers, not the animals.
Voters lose ultimately when politics consumes governing, when style overrides substance, when tough — usually stupid — words override reflective thought that might prevent you from being painted into a corner.
Politics is gut stuff. Good government and serious policy-making, in contrast, engage the brain.
"We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by out-muscling some of the larger mammals," Rockman points out. "We got there by outwitting them."
Now that the campaigns have paused (and perhaps realized that they aren’t just preaching to their respective choirs), what should they be saying?
First, the candidates should ask without preconditions why the current economic crisis happened — and then not respond with stock answers.
They can’t just shout "Regulate more!" without knowing what it is they need to regulate, and under what framework and oversight.
Most Americans understand that you must balance your checkbook. They want to know that the guy they’re electing operates the same way; they want to hear that, under his administration, the Federal Reserve will be more incremental in managing the nation’s money supply.
No ideological themes sung to finger-wagging — Middle America wants to know what political commitments we can and cannot afford.
For its part, the press should ask much better questions, departing from "gotcha" or silly questions and leaping into reality, such as "What are you actually going to do?" or "What’s the basis for the claim you’re making?"
Federal Reserve historian and Carnegie Mellon professor Allan Meltzer says we have faced serious problems such as this before, most recently the banking problems of the early 1990s.
Meltzer says that because banks lend long-term and borrow short-term, "Crises occur when the market changes."
What most people want is to understand the problem, how it affects their pocketbook and what each candidate will do to clean up the mess.
University of Arkansas political science professor Rob Maranto says that because the press focuses on such things as intercepted e-mails, pregnant daughters, Obama’s slickness or McCain’s temper, we all understand the candidates’ personal characteristics and can make some sense of them.
But the larger issue is, who understands today’s financial meltdown?
Only time (short-term time, since we are now just 30-odd days from Election Day) will tell if McCain cowboy-upped during his "suspended" campaign and achieved something worthwhile or if he and Obama simply picked up where they left off — allowing the chin-waggers to frame the campaign’s final month and leaving Main Street in suspended animation.
Salena Zito covers politics for the Trib. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7879.