Archive for Saturday, September 27, 2008

Campaign stress aids McCain

September 27, 2008


When Sen. John McCain suspended his campaign this week and suggested that Friday night's debate be postponed, there was a great deal of clucking about what some took to be his recklessness and desperation.

To be sure, McCain has not covered himself in glory during the last two weeks, calling for the firing of Securities and Exchange Commission chief Christopher Cox and musing that he might appoint New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, to run the SEC.

Neither suggestion spoke to a seriousness of purpose.

Yet viewed through another lens, McCain's taking leave of the campaign was quite serious: It suggested that he has a clear-eyed understanding of the dynamics of the race and knows that if he has any chance of victory, he needs to alter the status quo.

Think of McCain's electoral environment as a non-Newtonian fluid.

Non-Newtonian fluids are a tiny cul-de-sac in the universe of fluid dynamics. The designation is used to classify any kind of fluid which has a variable viscosity.

This sounds complex, but it's actually quite simple: A non-Newtonian fluid behaves one way when it is allowed to sit in a steady state and another way when stress is applied to it.

The simplest example of a non-Newtonian fluid can be made by mixing cornstarch with water. If you fill a pot with the stuff and let it sit, it acts basically like a thick soup. But if you slap it, or strike it sharply, it becomes rubbery and behaves like a solid.

Physics geeks like to fill wading pools with cornstarch and water because it allows them to do a neat trick: You can actually run around on the surface of the pool, as long as you keep your feet hitting the mixture fast enough.

Once you stop moving, it becomes liquid again and you quickly sink into the muck. Which pretty much describes the political dynamic McCain faces.

President Bush has bequeathed to Republicans a world in which it should be impossible for them to win the White House: two wars, record gas prices, a weak dollar, a popped housing bubble, a looming recession, and now the Wall Street meltdown.

Republican Party identification is down and Democrats have a big edge on the generic congressional ballot - though the GOP has seen a small uptick in these numbers over the last few weeks.

Those are the essential underpinnings of the race. Which is why, whenever the campaign has tended toward stasis, and McCain stands still, he sinks.

However, McCain has found that when stresses are applied to the race, it changes character and becomes more favorable. When Russia invaded Georgia or when Sen. Barack Obama gave his ill-conceived Berlin address, McCain jumped in the polls.

And when outside events haven't occurred, McCain has tried to create stresses. That's why he challenged Obama to a series of 10 town-hall meetings. And it's a big part of why he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

What makes McCain's campaign particularly canny is that he has tried to stir the pot even when confronted with events that should be very bad for him. When Hurricane Gustav threatened to overshadow the Republican convention, McCain simply scrapped the first day of the show.

Today the credit market is hanging by a thread and taxpayers may be on the hook for a $700 billion bailout. All while the executives who drove Lehman Bros. into the ground are poised to share $2.5 billion in bonus money.

These developments should, by conventional political standards, seal the election for Obama. Yet McCain took the initiative and shook things up again by suspending his campaign.

As a tactical matter, it's irrelevant whether or not this gambit works. If it does, the bounce will be short-lived and McCain will have to prod the system before November.

If it backfires, it hardly matters: The natural state of the race is quicksand for Republicans.

McCain's only chance is to keep his feet moving.

- Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is


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