The meltdown on Wall Street reminds us how quickly events can change the political calculus. Coming out of the conventions and basking in the glow of Sarah Palin's rocket ride to celebrity, Republicans were gleeful—they never expected John McCain to be this competitive—while Democrats sank into a state of gloom. After losing two consecutive presidential races they should have won, Democrats worried that the same aloof, elitist caricature that helped bring down Al Gore and John Kerry would effectively be used to sink the party's chances of winning the White House once again.
Then McCain declared that the "fundamentals" of the economy are strong while voters watched workers at Lehman Brothers hurriedly carrying out their personal belongings as the venerable brokerage house succumbed to bankruptcy. An $85 billion bailout of insurance giant AIG quickly followed, and the next round of polls showed the electorate settling back to where it was before the Palin phenomenon, with Obama regaining his national lead. Now the candidates are scrambling to assert themselves amid a rapidly changing financial picture. McCain is portraying himself as Teddy Roosevelt redux, ready to take on the Wall Street barons, while Obama huddled with his financial advisers at a stop in Florida, trying to devise a plan that would reassure voters he's the leader they should choose.
Ever since the 1930s, economic distress has tended to incline voters toward the Democratic Party. Yet Obama's numbers are no better than Kerry's were four years ago in Michigan and Ohio, where economic suffering and dislocation is quantifiably greater than the national average. Conversely, in states with more vibrant economies like Colorado and Virginia, Obama is doing better than the 2004 nominee. The influx of young voters into the newer-economy states is part of the reason for the shift. Voters under 30 prefer Obama by a 23 point margin over McCain. By contrast, Kerry had only a 10 point edge over President Bush in that age group.
Older voters are more likely to struggle with the central choice of the campaign: experience versus judgment. Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, author of a newly published account of the Cuban missile crisis, "One Minute to Midnight," says it's a false choice, arguing that a leader needs both. "People can be incredibly experienced and still have their judgment questioned." President Kennedy's handling of the Soviet installation of missiles in Cuba is cited as a study in crisis management. Did he defuse what could have spiraled into a nuclear confrontation because of experience? By 1962, the new president had been through the Bay of Pigs, which taught him to mistrust the assurances of military leaders and to be skeptical of CIA assessments. Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August," about the origins of World War I, had just been published; Kennedy had his advisers read it, and he sent it to military commanders around the world. The lesson he drew was that you could get into war by mistake.
Asked to apply the attributes of JFK's leadership to today's candidates, Dobbs begged off as a British citizen. But he said he disagreed with Gen. Wesley Clark's assessment that getting shot down did not qualify McCain to be president, just as he differed with critics who belittle Obama's childhood in Indonesia as being relevant to his preparedness. It is the totality of life experience—along with a president's sense of the country, his own character and what he's read of history—that come to bear in a crisis. Dobbs writes that Kennedy asked his military advisers how many people would die if a single Soviet missile got through and landed somewhere near an American city. The answer was 600,000. "That's the total number of casualties in the Civil War," Kennedy exploded. "And we haven't gotten over it in a hundred years." Though certain the United States would prevail in any limited nuclear exchange, Kennedy concluded nuclear weapons were only good for deterring, and that it was "insane that two men, sitting on opposite ends of the world should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization."
A questioner at a book signing in Washington recalled how vivid the possibility of nuclear war seemed to her as a 17-year-old in 1962. She was issued dog tags so her remains could be identified, and she remembers maps with overlays of exactly how many miles from the city you would need to travel to survive a bomb blast. The team of advisers that helped steer Kennedy through that perilous time emerged with a sense of confidence that they had stared down the Evil Empire. In truth, there was blinking on both sides, Dobbs says. The Kennedy team drew the wrong lessons, and when they went to Vietnam they went emboldened with the feeling that if they could defeat the Soviet Union, a small country could be handled with ease. The strategy of calibrated bombing to bring the enemy to its knees did not work the way calibrated messages had between Kennedy and Khrushchev. The North Vietnamese matched each escalation. It wasn't limited war to them, and the same team that was lauded for bringing the nation back from the brink of nuclear war would be pilloried for getting into a war they didn't know how to end.