By any conventional political measurement, the presidential campaign of 2008, which we now know will be fought between John McCain and Barack Obama, should not be much of a contest. The McCain camp knows that both the math and the mood are against them. About 80 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track after eight years of Republican rule; the incumbent GOP president enjoys—if that is the word—the approval of less than a third of the nation. Add in Obama's undeniable political gifts and you have the makings, on paper or on screen, of a Democratic triumph for the ages.
Our cover surely fits within that larger prospective narrative. Written by Daniel Gross with an essay by Fareed Zakaria and a collection of views from the NEWSWEEK Business Roundtable (which includes Robert Rubin, Larry Lindsey and Robert Reich), the package explains why our current economic troubles represent a different and possibly more serious kind of recession than past downturns. The package, which is part of our ongoing Inside Business series, was edited by Kathy Deveny and David Jefferson, and fair warning: it is not the sort of reporting, analysis and perspective that will make you want to go on a wild summer spending spree. Dan writes: "Many factors, from a weak dollar to rising speculation, are behind the higher commodity prices. But at root, $4-per-gallon gasoline and $20-per-pound steaks are largely a function of the changing economic geography, and the diminished stature of the United States." In previous post–World War II recessions, America was the decisive factor. No more: "My impression is that China and India both have sufficient domestic demand-led growth to continue to have vibrant growth even if the U.S. has a sustained period of difficulty," Rubin told us.
All of which should mean the Obamas would be wise to start thinking about schools in Washington. But in an interview with us, McCain made it clear that he will not remain the Forgotten Nominee for long, and the past should give the GOP reason to hope. It is worth remembering that recent American history suggests big wins are the exception rather than the rule. The last president to win more than 51 percent of the popular vote was George H.W. Bush, in 1988—20 years and five campaigns ago. Bill Clinton never broke 50 percent; Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, and George W. Bush won 50.7 percent to John Kerry's 48.3 percent in 2004. If there is a blowout in November, it will be unusual.
McCain was in a car, riding through a sticky morning in Florida, when Holly Bailey and I spoke with him on a conference call. We started the interview, which begins on page 34, by noting the problems inherent to any Republican candidate in this climate. McCain did not disagree, and the case he made for himself was a reminder of his fighting spirit. Asked about his "that's not change you can believe in" line—I expressed a personal view that it was not exactly a Churchillian trope—he replied: "Well, I think it's an important part of this campaign to point out that everybody wants change, but there is a right change and a wrong change. I believe that what Senator Obama is advocating is a return to the failed policies of the '60s and '70s—bigger government, higher taxes—and certainly not the same view [as McCain] on national-security challenges." Later, he struck a tough note, saying that "the parameters of this debate are not going to be set by Senator Obama." Senator Clinton was a formidable foe. Senator McCain will be, too.