Grace under pressure

GRACE UNDER PRESSURE…. When it comes to the McCain campaign and the crisis on Wall Street, part of the problem is the shift towards substance and policy details, both of which McCain has been actively trying to avoid. But the rest of the problem is that voters have been looking to McCain for some sense that he knows what’s going on, and he’s come up short.

On ABC’s “This Week” yesterday morning, George Will made an interesting observation: “I suppose the McCain campaigns hope is that when there’s a big crisis, people will go for age and experience. The question is, who in this crisis looked more presidential, calm and unflustered. It wasn’t John McCain who, as usual, substituting vehemence for coherence, said, ‘Let’s fire somebody.’ And he picked one of the most experienced and conservative people in the administration, Chris Cox, and for no apparent reason, or at least none that he vouched safe, he said, ‘Fire Chris Cox at the SEC.’ It was unpresidential behavior by a presidential aspirant.” In the same program, Will added, “John McCain showed his personality this week, and it made some of us fearful.”

Welcome to the club, George.

Last week was incredibly difficult for McCain, not only because the nation’s interest turned to a subject he knows little about, but because he floundered, moving from one response to another. He hates regulation, and he loves regulation. The fundamentals are strong, except when they’re not. We need a commission to find out what happened, and he knows exactly what happened. Cox has to go, just don’t ask him why. Usually, when looking for a leader in trying times, people want a steady, competent hand. McCain seemed to go out of his way to present himself as the opposite.

I suppose the larger question is what kind of president voters are looking for this year — haphazard vs. deliberate, obtuse vs. cerebral. Watching the candidates on “60 Minutes” last night, it was clear that McCain wanted to appear “tough.” He was out of his depth talking about policy, but as Michael Crowley noted, he came across as “someone ready to kick ass and take names.”

Obama, meanwhile, was smart, knowledgeable, even-keeled. He showed judgment and sophistication. If McCain was the kid who tried to b.s. his way through the oral exam through brute force, Obama was the kid who did his homework and knew what he was talking about.

I like to think this is a good thing, but these are strange political times. Crowley concluded, “[Obama] offered more substance about his agenda. But he didn’t deliver his message with quite the gut-punching oomph of McCain’s populist outrage. We saw, I think, a similar contrast in the candidates’ two ads about the economy this week (Obama spoke soberly to the camera for two minutes, while McCain put up a razzle-dazzle punch-throwing spot). A major unknown question right now is: Which style will more voters respond to?”