IT’S HISTORY’S FAULT…. The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson makes the case today that John McCain has been a fine candidate, running a fine campaign, and was surprisingly well positioned to compete, before that darned financial crisis messed everything up.

[S]ometimes a candidate who is down in the polls is not an incompetent but a bystander…. The diverging political fortunes of Barack Obama and McCain can be traced to a single moment. In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points. Did McCain suddenly become a stumbling failure? No, the world suddenly went into an economic slide. Americans blamed the party with executive power, which is also the party most closely tied in the public mind to bankers and Wall Street. None of this was fair to McCain, who has never been the Wall Street type. But party images are vivid, durable and almost impossible to shift on short notice.

Previous to this economic free fall — and after his transformative vice-presidential choice — McCain was about tied in a race he should have been losing by a large margin. The public clearly had questions about Obama’s leadership qualities. But the McCain campaign also proved itself capable of constructing an effective narrative: Obama as lightweight celebrity, McCain as maverick reformer. Until history intervened.

This is a bizarre argument. Gerson is, in effect, insisting that McCain was in great shape just so long as voters were distracted by questions of personality and cultural resentment — Paris Hilton, tire gauges, lipstick, and arugula — but ran into trouble when substance reared its head. It’s not exactly a compelling pitch.

For that matter, I think Gerson overlooks the significance (and timing) of the debates. By the middle of September, as the financial crisis was unfolding and McCain started acting erratically, voters tuned in to see what this Obama guy was really like. They saw a bright, skilled leader, who exuded confidence and presidential qualities, and bore no resemblance to the scary man described in the right-wing email chains. Just as in ’60, ’80, and ’92, Americans tuned into the debates to see if the new guy passed the credibility test. Obama did.

And finally, Gerson seems to think McCain’s “bystander” problem was unavoidable. He’s wrong. As the financial crisis unfolded, McCain had an opportunity to demonstrate some expertise on economic issues, and prove to voters he could be trusted. Instead, he’s flailed around for weeks, moving from one hastily thrown together idea to another, all while trying to change the subject away from the economy.

Gerson is going to have to do better than this.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.