"John McCain's problem tonight was that he was more comfortable talking about the height of South Koreans than he was talking about the health of the U.S. economy," was more or less my insta-analysis on CNBC immediately after last Friday's presidential debate. Although many pundits thought the result was a narrow McCain victory or a tie based on his perhaps winning the longer foreign policy portion of the debate, the segment on the economy—the most important issue—was no contest. (Just check out the Gallup Polls, which show Barack Obama opening up a healthy lead.) It was as if McCain spent so much time either preparing to talk foreign policy or inserting himself into the bailout debate that he didn't prepare much for the last-minute addition of an economic chunk. (Note how little he attacked the specifics of Obamanomics.)
So McCain instead went on autopilot and talked about the domestic policy issue he knows best—spending. Of course, polls show spending by itself ranks far below economic growth, jobs, and energy as the main concerns of most folks. It is not, per se, an economic issue that directly affects people. A politician has to help voters think of government spending in Washington as a kitchen-table issue on Main Street. He has to make the case that overspending will hurt our standard of living. But McCain didn't do that, nor was he able to weave the Mother of All Bailouts into a coherent and persuasive narrative about the failure of Fannie/Freddie and the evils of know-it-all, spend-it-all Big Government. Talk about the Mother of Missed Opportunities.
But just having a government that more or less balances its books doesn't ensure prosperity. Necessary perhaps, but not sufficient. And that was where McCain really whiffed. He didn't make the case that his economic plan bettered the life of the average American. He didn't hit hard the fact that his corporate tax cut would not only help keep jobs in America but would actually raise the wages of workers. And he couldn't trumpet his own broad middle-class tax cut because he doesn't have one. (And once again, he screwed up the description of his plan to double the dependent exemption.) Team McCain can't afford too many more wins like that one.