The McCain of the Week
Saturday, 20 September 2008

GAIL COLLINS

VIENNA, Ohio

"The people of Ohio are the most productive in the world!" yelled John McCain at a rally outside of Youngstown on Tuesday. Present company perhaps excluded, since the crowd was made up entirely of people who were at liberty in the middle of a workday.

Folks were wildly enthusiastic as the event began. That was partly because Sarah Palin was also on the bill. (With Todd!) And when McCain took the center stage, they were itching to cheer the war hero and boo all references to pork-barrel spenders.
 
Nobody had warned them that he had just morphed into a new persona — a raging populist demanding more regulation of the nation's financial system. And since McCain's willingness to make speeches that have nothing to do with his actual beliefs is not matched by an ability to give them, he wound up sounding like Bob Dole impersonating Huey Long.
 
Really, if McCain is going to keep changing into new people, the campaign should send out notices. (Come to a rally for the next president of the United States. Today he's a vegetarian!)
 
"We're going to put an end to the abuses on Wall Street — enough is enough!" this new incarnation yelled, complaining angrily about greed and overpaid C.E.O.'s. Slowly, people begin to peel out of the crowd and drift away. Even in these troubled times, there are apparently a number of Republicans who think highly of corporate executives and captains of high finance.
 
The whole transformation was fascinating in a cheap-thrills kind of way. It's not every day, outside of "Incredible Hulk" movies, that you see somebody make this kind of turnaround in the scope of a few hours.
 
On Monday in Jacksonville, Fla., McCain made his now-famous reassurance that the fundamentals of the economy were still good. It's a longstanding line of his, but this was perhaps not the best week to dredge it up. So the handlers went to work, and by the time McCain arrived in Orlando a few hours later he was reprogrammed. And angry!
 
"We're going to put an end to the abuses on Wall Street! Enough is enough! We're going to put an end to the greed!" he told a town hall meeting crowded with Hispanic Republicans. It was a rather jumbled message, but the new story line was firm. The fundamentals were not things like employment rates or trade statistics. The fundamentals were the workers.
 
We are the fundamentals!
 
And, naturally, the humble, hard-working fundamentals are good. Who could doubt it? Was Barack Obama trying to say that he didn't think the American working man and woman was good? Was this the sort of thing they talked about at those fancy-schmancy Hollywood fund-raisers? Which, of course, John McCain hates. Give him some hard cider and a log cabin, and he's happy as a clam.
 
But wait! The fundamentals are in danger! At risk because of "greed." Which John McCain was shocked to discover has been running rampant in the canyons of Wall Street.
 
Now in an election like this, you expect a certain amount of tactical reimagining. McCain used to like reporters, and now he treats them as if they were carrying the Ebola virus. Fair enough, although given the fact that he's terrible at speeches, and the famous town halls have now become Republican-only lovefests, the campaign really should invent some new method of communication. (And remember, the man doesn't text.)
 
It is also disconcerting, of course, to hear the Republicans rail against Washington as if the Socialist Workers Party had been running things there for the last eight years. But really, what would you do if you were McCain? There aren't a lot of options, and he never did like George W. anyway.
 
This new tactic is different. McCain has always, genuinely, believed in dismantling government regulations, and there he was, vowing to create new "comprehensive regulations that will apply the rules and enforce them to the fullest." It makes you think that he's trying to impersonate something he's not. Or wasn't. Or might not be. The image is getting fuzzy.
 
This week, while McCain's chief economic adviser was telling reporters that it was wrong to "run for president by denigrating everything in sight and trying to scare people," McCain's ad people were unveiling a new spot announcing "Our economy in crisis!" and calling for "tougher rules on Wall Street" along, of course, with more offshore drilling. Mournful unemployment-line music swells.
 
I have absolutely no idea of how John McCain would handle a financial crisis if he were president. But on behalf of all the nation's fundamentals I would like to say that he now has me ready to stage a run on the first bank in sight.
Gail Collins joined the New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times editorial page

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