What Could Change the Election?


The Post asked John Podesta, Newt Gingrich, Mary Beth Cahill, Peter J. Wallison and Stuart E. Eizenstat what could make tonight a game-changer.

John Podesta, Chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

McCain needs to change the dynamic of this race, but his erratic responses to the economic crisis aren’t the way to do it. He could consider announcing that, if elected, he would pledge to serve only one term, with the goal of restoring stability to the economy based on conservative ideas. This might help neutralize concerns over McCain’s age and could, perhaps, restore the perception of seriousness that his campaign has been so desperately lacking in recent weeks. McCain would need to embrace the lame-duck status accorded to a term-limited president by expressing his eagerness to work with a Democratic Congress. He might also give voters a taste of his administration by disclosing some of his picks for a bipartisan Cabinet.

This gamble would focus attention on his potential successor, Sarah Palin, whose policies align even more closely with President Bush’s and whose abuses of power eerily resemble Dick Cheney’s. But there aren’t many good options for McCain at this stage, and this long shot has the advantage of closing with honor.

Newt Gingrich, Former Republican speaker of the House.

McCain has to focus on the Reid-Pelosi-Obama machine and the threats they pose to most Americans: Nancy Pelosi’s call for “harsh measures”; the Democrats’ proposal Monday to abolish 401(k) plans; the plan to strip Americans of the right to vote in a secret-ballot election before being coerced into joining a union; the tax increase on the investors who are needed to regrow the stock market and retirement plans, and their likely flight from American investments; the use of tax money to pay the liberal group ACORN, which is engaged in massive voter fraud in its registration drives in multiple states; the close ties Chris Dodd, Barack Obama and Barney Frank have to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and the trillion-dollar spending increase in the Obama campaign promises. If McCain can make these facts stick, he can get back into the race.

Mary Beth Cahill, Manager of Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign and former chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy.

So far in this general election, the debates have not been game-changers. Were McCain to unveil a coherent economic recovery strategy believable to voters and regain his footing as an independent-minded leader capable of appealing to independents, he might be able to move outside of the Republican base vote in the final weeks and tighten the endgame.

But that is unlikely to happen. Obama will turn in another calm, knowledgeable performance, and McCain will not return his gaze.

Peter J. Wallison, Counsel to President Ronald Reagan; financial policy studies fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Republicans have been discouraged and frustrated by McCain’s apparent refusal to challenge Obama on two obvious points. For instance, Obama repeatedly states that “Republican deregulation” is responsible for the financial crisis, but he has not been asked what “deregulation” he is talking about. The repeal of Glass-Steagall is often cited by other Democrats, but it occurred in 1999 with the support of the Clinton Treasury Department. The only significant financial regulation of any kind in the past 30 years occurred in a Republican administration, with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act during the first Bush presidency. That act substantially strengthened bank regulation.

Second, Obama’s repeated references to giving 95 percent of Americans a tax cut means that 5 percent will get a tax increase. An increase in anyone’s taxes — especially those who own small businesses and create most of the jobs in this country — is a profoundly wrongheaded policy in the current economy. Although Obama — under the pressure of circumstances — might abandon this idea if he gets into office, McCain should challenge him to say whether he will stick with his job-killing plans, and why. If not, how he will change them? Bill Clinton, after all, also pledged a middle-class tax cut in 1992 and benefited by doing so, but he never delivered.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, Chief domestic policy adviser in the Carter White House; held four senior positions in the Clinton administration.

Presidential debates have historically tended to help the lesser-known opponent for the party out of power at the expense of the better-known candidate of the incumbent party.

In the 1976 debates I helped then-insurgent Jimmy Carter prepare for, he was able to pounce on President Ford’s statement that the Soviet Union did not control Eastern Europe and show that it was the one-term former governor, not the president, who better understood the U.S.S.R. The tables were turned in the 1980 debates when Ronald Reagan, with his avuncular manner and famous attack line — “Are you better off today than you were two years ago?” — assured the American people that a change of leadership would not be dangerous.

In this election, with the unpopular president from his party presiding over a deep economic crisis and two wars, John McCain represents the incumbent party and Obama represents the opposition party. In Obama’s two previous debate performances — like JFK in 1960, Jimmy Carter in ’76, Ronald Reagan in ’80, Bill Clinton in ’92 and George W. Bush in 2000 — he projected a clear message and came across as an intelligent and reassuring figure. That has helped blunt the attempts by the McCain campaign to portray him the risky candidate. Another solid performance by Obama will add to the same benefit that victorious challengers have historically achieved in presidential debates: to make change a positive, not threatening, choice for voters.