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Six handicaps for John McCain

Last updated on: November 04, 2008 16:51 IST

Any Republican presidential candidate necessarily had to start his campaign with the handicap of eight Republican years in the White House, which in themselves evoke desires for a Democratic president.

But the particular Republican president in office happens to be very unpopular. At this point in history, all of George Bush's achievements have been forgotten or discounted, including the defeat of jihadism from Morocco to Indonesia and the de-nuclearization of Iraq, Libya and North Korea -- while he is blamed for all that has gone wrong. His fiscal policy certainly caused excessive deficits, but it was under Bill Clinton that mortgage lenders were forced to lend to subprime borrowers.

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By summertime, when John McCain had emerged as the Republican candidate, he had to face a third, strong handicap -- a slowing economy, sharply declining housing values and the inevitable impact on mortgage instruments and their derivatives that had started to hurt investment banks and their insurers.

For McCain, it was actually a double handicap. The Republicans were blamed and the responsibilities of Congressional Democrats were overlooked, while his own comparative advantage as a "security" candidate who knows how to win wars was devalued. Ironically, because the situation in Iraq has improved, its political significance has declined.

Then came the fifth blow to McCain: the October financial crisis that engulfed the entire financial structure, reduced stock-market valuations to 65% of pre-crisis levels and further depressed the "real" economy that was already slowing down anyway.

The damage to McCain was again disproportionate because of the presumption of Republican responsibility -- and indeed the build-up of excess liquidity that caused all the other problems as money chased higher yields started in 2001 -- and because McCain has no financial expertise of his own.

Nor does Obama, of course, and indeed in spite of all his Wall Street supporters -- many more than McCain's --Obama has failed to offer any convincing plan of his own. Instead, he has joined McCain in supporting the Bush remedies, controversial as they are.

But Obama's shortcomings no longer matter, because nothing that McCain has done so far has been able to overcome these five handicaps.

And now there is a sixth one, which may be lethal in itself: Because Obama refused federal funding and its limits -- after promising to accept them -- he has been able to raise much more money than the $84 million federal grant McCain received.

Thus, in especially contested states like Virginia, Obama is now spending three or four times as much as McCain on television advertising, obscuring McCain's message with nonstop videos on all major channels. McCain's campaign has so little money that it cannot even answer Obama's accusations that McCain wants to reduce national pensions (social security) and healthcare for those over 65 (medicare).

National polls show that Obama is ahead. But they mean nothing, because this is not a national election but rather a simultaneous election in 50 separate states and the District of Columbia, which have 538 combined electoral votes. These do reflect the number of voters in each state, but not proportionately, because even the least populated states have at least three votes.

In only two states, Maine and Nebraska, are the electoral votes awarded more or less proportionately. In the others, a simple majority plus one wins all the electoral votes of that state, so that larger majorities in states dominated by one party do not count.

It is therefore Obama's advantage in predicted electoral votes that matters: out of the total of 538, it is now believed that he will win 313 against McCain's 174, with only 51 still in doubt. Unless many white and Hispanic voters are lying to pollsters and will not actually vote for a black candidate, or Obama makes a huge mistake that irreparably offends a major sector of the electorate, his victory is now certain.

An Obama presidency could have large implications for the immediate future of the United States -- or perhaps it won't. Obama is perceived as a black candidate -- and that is why he has vehement support from white liberals who believe that the Obama presidency will wash away all white sins from slavery onward.

But Obama is not the descendant of slaves and, culturally, has little in common with American blacks. He is the child of an ultra-liberal mother who rejected her white identity and America itself (she preferred Indonesia), and his views were further shaped by left-wing Chicago urban politics.

In other words, Obama is actually a 'red' candidate -- in favour of as much income redistribution as possible. In Europe, that would make him a Social Democrat. In the more conservative American context, that makes him a radical, but Obama has successfully concealed that.

For example, whenever he is asked to name his economic adviser, Obama cites Paul Volcker, the 81-year old former chairman of the Federal Reserve under Ronald Reagan who advocates strict fiscal austerity, not new social spending.

The great irony is that because of the financial crisis and the economy's slow-down, Obama's camouflage of fiscal conservatism will become reality no matter what. Whoever is president will have to cut the federal budget, not increase it. As for redistribution by taxing the rich, that is mostly a fantasy. As soon as marginal tax rates increase, so does the perfectly legal use of tax avoidance through tax credits for alternative energy, environmental remedies, subsidised housing and more.

But the ultimate irony is that, of the two candidates, only McCain would make large cuts in defense spending -- he believes that most large new weapon programmes should be delayed because Russia and China are so far behind technologically. Even if Congress was full of Democrats, it will never let Obama cut the Pentagon's budget anywhere near as much, and it always has the last word.

Edward N Luttwak often writes on strategic affairs. His book, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, is used as a military textbook in many countries

Edward N Luttwak, Forbes