‘Now he’s proposing a scheme that would be unfair to taxpayers, and wouldn’t solve the problem,’ the candidate yelled to a cheering, baying crowd. Goddam right wing petit-bourgeois b-llsh-t I thought, half-listening as the taxi went across the bridge with two asymmetrical arches, why would they … oh my god it’s a guitar! It’s totally a guitar. As soon as you see it, you see it. That is really, really clever. Who’s this tool spruiking for the ‘taxpayer’? Deep smoky voic e…’ That was Barack Obama in Ohio today,’ the radio warbled. Then, ‘are your stools hard to pass ….’

With the Dow diving a solid predictable 500 a day, now about 67% of its value at its highest point, and six trillion dollars wiped off the map, political polarities have been utterly reversed and both candidates are now fighting from outside their enemy’s territory, shelling their own hometowns.

John McCain’s proposal to buy-back mortgages at their on-paper value, first spruiked in this week’s debate, has to be one of the greatest leapfrogs in political history. An enormous piece of state intervention, effectively making the state the direct holder of large amounts of American homeownership, it marks a total departure by McCain from everything he’s believed, been advised about, or had urged on him by the conservatoriat.

To call it rewarding ‘moral hazard’ is a gross understatement. This is smack outside the playground stuff. Though the scheme calls for some weak filters – obvious fraudsters, etc – it punishes the scrupulous mortgagee, and rewards the folks who had the home theatre unit and the jacuzzi installed in the McMansion before the ink was even dry on the no-deposit deal. And of course rewards the lenders who put these things out there in the first place.

Market distortion? It’s an Escher triptych. Desperate, it’s … well, it’s something else. The plan is loathed by the ideological Republican core, and the flacks appearing on cable news to defend it today have been faces not often seen – most of them GOP Congress members in threatened hut still winnable districts.

The plan – in the McCain form – is chaos, a transfer to shonky institutions via the medium of the homeowner, pretty much like his healthcare plan. But it has opened up another front in the campaign, and you have to admire the old bastard for his forcefulness. The $300 billion mortgage buy-out gets McCain into so many policy tangles that his town hall meetings are starting to look like a music hall mnemonist’s performance.

He has to get from cutting government spending to a mortgage buyout in three sentences, so he has to put something in the middle, that makes them look like the same sort of thing. Lately he’s been resorting to the Teddy Roosevelt Republican motif – that, like Roosevelt he’s a trust buster, standing up to the big boys on behalf of the little people.

Trouble is, Teddy Roosevelt did so much trust-busting that the party pretty much threw him out (yes, it’s more complicated than that), thereby losing its last line with social liberalism and the labour movement, and ushering in a half century of Democratic domination. McCain is the sort of country-club Republican Roosevelt T didn’t have much time for.

Nevertheless, big ups to him for finding a new angle. As usual the Democrats have been caught out by it. Having endorsed the bailout, and failing to bring in any alternative scheme from the left – a state lending body to guarantee main street credit and take-over suspended cashflow credit lines, together with a foreclosure moratorium and scaled mortgage subsidisation, plus expanded public housing with large private-public bind issues, with provision for lease-buy arrangements by average wage earners, just off the top of my head – Obama is now stuck with owning it. He spoke with reasonable eloquence during the Senate debate about the bailout. McCain didn’t speak, and was clearly already calculating the angles.

So Obama now has to nail his colours to the mast of clear-headed leadership, and make it clear to the public that it’s a payment to the banks, not Main Street getting a slice of what Wall Street is having. McCain is presenting the $300 billion as coming out of the $700 billion but since that money is meant to be released in three tranches – the hope being to keep it to $250 billion – it’s hard to see where. (And in the last few minutes McCain has said that the scheme may require ‘more money’. More what?)

Though the scheme is being widely derided, and though McCain’s numbers continue to head south, it would be unwise to write the idea off completely as a political move. So much attention has been focussed on the need for a ‘game changer’, that another scenario – a slow remorseless crawlback over the next month, combining pots of cash for mortgages, with continued attacks on Obama’s past associations – has been overlooked. Here’s what would happen. McCain would hit and hit and hit on mortgage money, and Chicago politics, and terrorists, and Yassar Hussein Osama stuff, and a coupla other things.

Hoping against hope for gaffes, mistakes etc by the Obama team, and that the Bradley effect kicks in – the tendancy for people to lie about the importance of race in their decisions, even in anonymous polling – McCain would hope that the four to five point leads in the big three – Ohio, Virginia, Florida – can be whittled to one or two, each state turning in his favour on a few thousand votes. Obama’s wins would be confined to a couple of smaller states – New Mexico and Colorado – not sufficient in themselves to seal the deal.

Yes, it’s unlikely. Actually you need a bigger word than that. But if there was any match-up where it could happen, the McCain Obama campaigns would be it. But it would take a lot of oomph, the irrepressible energy that audacity requires.

And that is exactly what McCain doesn’t have at the moment. He’s just juiced, done. You can see it in these town hall meetings he has, where the words slips are starting to make his sentences incomprehensible, and he’s having increasing difficulty not wandering into moments of pure confusion in the middle of the Waxachie Hampton Inn ballroom. He’s been touring with Palin, but he can’t do full tag-team with her because she’s an idiot, and can’t even roll out a decent answer for the likes of Sean Hannity. She’s also got the report on ‘Troopergate’ about to be released, and by next week she may become the most disastrous VP in history.

For McCain and Palin to have any chance, they would have to get this one-two punch happening, all money now, and watch out for the dangerous terrorist. Getting lopsided on the character attacks on Obama starts to look crazy without getting the other side up.

Here too, however, the Republicans are getting some traction, with allegations about ACORN, the community organisers group, that is turning out heavily and legally for Obama, especially in terms of voter registration. The GOP allege that they’re stacking the rools, which may well be true, although of course the best analysis of American politics was LBJ’s 1956 remark that ‘ah well they just stole more votes than we did’.

However it may also be that some Republicans don’t understand how registration works. On Fox News’s Red Eye programme (quite funny, now that their loss seems likely) one GOP hack shrieked ‘I heard that ACORN are registering the homeless! They’re quite open about it!’ before being gently reminded that the homeless were, also, citizens.

Obama has been noting of late that the question ‘are you better off than four years ago?’ can now be amended to ‘weeks’. But the sense of relentless sliding applies to his campaign as much as old Walnuts’s. With the UK and soon the US buying up a section of its banking sector, and whole modern western countries – Iceland the first – going bankrupt, with the EU collapsing into nation-state interest, and Asia on the slide, the global situation is changing so rapidly beneath everyone’s feet that the disconnect with politics is total.

And every McCain-Palin rally is becoming an ever greater festival of white rage. And populist broadcasters like Glenn Beck on CNN are calling for someone like ‘General Petraeus’ to oversee financial recovery. And voter rolls are still being purged in key swing states. And all this business of Bill Ayers and bailouts, hockey moms and Husseins, by next year, may look very September tenth.

As you come over the Guitar bridge in Nashville, the AT and T centre looms up ahead. It’s another witty building, with a trapezoid back and twin aerial towers and then you realise … oh my god it’s a mobile phone! One problem – it’s a mobile phone from five years ago – one of those chunky black stealth bomber ones, remember them? God they looked slick. Now they look old. Presiding over the city, its towers twitching with fresh information, it’s as good a monument to hubris as you could want.

Peter Fray

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