Fortune: Mr. McCain, what do you think is the single greatest economic threat to the United States?
McCain at first says nothing. He sits in the corner of a sofa, one
black, tasseled loafer propped against a coffee table. We’re in the
presidential suite on the 41st floor of the New York Hilton. McCain has
come here – between a major speech on the economy in Washington, D.C.,
this morning and a fundraiser tonight at the 21 Club – to talk to us
and to let us take his picture. He is wearing a dark suit, as he almost
always does, with a blue shirt and a wine-colored tie. He’s looking not
at us but into the void. His eyes are narrowed. Nine seconds of
silence, ten seconds, 11. Finally he says, "Well, I would think that
the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we’re in against
radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very
existence. Another successful attack on the United States of America
could have devastating consequences."
Not America’s dependence
on foreign oil? Not climate change? [ed. — nice to hear Fortune magazine asking this question!] Not the crushing cost of health
care? Eventually McCain gets around to mentioning all three of those.
But he starts by deftly turning the economy into a national security
issue – and why not? On national security McCain wins. We saw how that
might play out early in the campaign, when one good scare, one timely
reminder of the chaos lurking in the world, probably saved McCain in
New Hampshire, a state he had to win to save his candidacy – this
according to McCain’s chief strategist, Charlie Black. The
assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December was an "unfortunate event,"
says Black. "But his knowledge and ability to talk about it
reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be Commander-in-Chief.
And it helped us." As would, Black concedes with startling candor after
we raise the issue, another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. "Certainly
it would be a big advantage to him," says Black.
Apparently not. Today the article was published. McCain repudiated Black’s claim. Black apologized.
"I deeply regret the comments — they were inappropriate," Black said outside a McCain fundraiser in Fresno, Calif. today.
This fits precisely with what a pollster was telling me last week. (More to come soon.) The public has rejected the politics of "the mindset that got us into war in Iraq," as Barack Obama memorably puts it.
If this pollster is right, McCain has been neutered. If he cannot attack Obama on his strength — national security issues — what does he have to say?
Update: Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight wonders if even a terrorist would always help the war candidate.
Coming soon to a used bookstore near you…