Message to McCain and Obama: Focus Please

As I write this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is below 9,900. Far worse, given that it reflects a significantly broader look at the market, the S&P 500 is barely above 1,000. All this in spite of the “rescue” package passed by Congress and signed into law by President George Bush. And what are the two major party presidential candidates talking about? Reverend James Wright and former-Savings and Loan executive Charles Keating.

Remember when we thought that Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama would be engaged in one of the most issues-focused campaigns in recent memory? That was a long, long time ago — about six months. Both seemed to be interested in moving beyond the partisan rancor of past campaigns. Both were casting themselves as bipartisan leaders, more interested in ideas than cheap shots.

Not any more. Senator McCain has encouraged his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, to move into pit bull mode (an approach she seems more comfortable with than talking about substantive issues anyway). She’s now accusing Senator Obama, more or less, of being an unpatriotic, perhaps a traitor, who pals around with terrorists because he sees America differently than most “us.” The charges are misleading (at best) and, according to some analysts, racist at worst. In either case, they do nothing to enhance the stature of either Senator McCain or Governor Palin.

Senator Obama’s campaign wasted no time in responding to the slime by tossing some of their own. They are not fixated on  Senator McCain’s involvement with Charles Keating and the S&L crisis of the 80’s. Senator McCain was reprimanded by the Senate for exercising “poor judgement” in that case. He’s described it as one of the low points of his life and used it as motivation to become a government reformer. He clearly has grown as a leader and Senator since that incident. Raising it again may be justified under the theory of mutually assured destruction (you sling mud at me and we’ll slime you), but it does nothing to reinforce Senator Obama’s claim to be a change agent.

Meanwhile, there’s the economy. The next president is going to have to help lead the country out of a recession — or worse. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear what the candidates have to say about how they would go about doing this? Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have this discussion without Senator McCain falsely accusing Senator Obama of seeking to raise taxes on the middle class and Senator Obama not attacking Senator McCain for causing the meltdown through supporting deregulation?

If the candidates are really interested in a new approach to politics, here’s something they could do during tomorrow’s debate: agree not to mention the other. They should pledge to answer questions only by referencing their own background and their own policies. They should then be required to sit there while and respond to the media’s fact checking. If they overstate their case they’ll be called on it to their face.

OK, that paragraph was a fantasy, so here’s something more realistic: a request for focus. Enough about Reverend Wright. Enough about Mr. Keating. From the perspective of most voters, the economy is falling apart and government action is ineffective. Tell us how you’re going to help fix things. Prove you’re worthy of the office by being presidential.

The candidates need to focus on articulating solutions, not slinging mud.

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