The Filter: Oct. 23, 2008

A round-up of this morning's must-read stories.

(Joseph Curl and Stephan Dinan, Washington Times)

Sen. John McCain on Wednesday blasted President Bush... whose unpopularity may be dragging the Republican Party to the brink of a massive electoral defeat. "We just let things get completely out of hand," he said of his own party's rule in the past eight years... McCain lashed out at a litany of Bush policies and issues that he said he would have handled differently as president... "Spending, the conduct of the war in Iraq for years, growth in the size of government, larger than any time since the Great Society, laying a $10 trillion debt on future generations of America, owing $500 billion to China, obviously, failure to both enforce and modernize the [financial] regulatory agencies that were designed for the 1930s and certainly not for the 21st century, failure to address the issue of climate change seriously," Mr. McCain said... aboard his campaign plane en route from New Hampshire to Ohio. "Those are just some of them," he said with a laugh, chomping into a peanut butter sandwich as a few campaign aides in his midair office joined in the laughter.

(Joe Klein, Time)

Barack Obama has prospered in this presidential campaign because of the steadiness of his temperament and the judicious quality of his decision-making. They are his best-known qualities. The most important decision he has made — the selection of a running mate — was done carefully, with an exhaustive attention to detail and contemplation of all the possible angles. Two months later, as John McCain's peremptory selection of Governor Sarah Palin has come to seem a liability, it could be argued that Obama's quiet selection of Joe Biden defined the public's choice in the general-election campaign. But not every decision can be made so carefully. There are a thousand instinctive, instantaneous decisions that a presidential candidate has to make in the course of a campaign — like whether to speak his mind to a General Petraeus — and this has been a more difficult journey for Obama, since he's far more comfortable when he's able to think things through. "He has learned to trust his gut," an Obama adviser told me. "He wasn't so confident in his instincts last year. It's been the biggest change I've seen in him."

(Robert Draper, New York Times Magazine)

John McCain’s biography has been the stuff of legend for nearly a decade. And yet Schmidt and his fellow strategists have had difficulty explaining how America will be better off for electing (as opposed to simply admiring) a stubborn patriot. In seeking to do so, the McCain campaign has changed its narrative over and over. Sometimes with McCain’s initial resistance but always with his eventual approval, Schmidt has proffered a candidate who is variously a fighter, a conciliator, an experienced leader and a shake-’em-up rebel. “The trick is that all of these are McCain,” Matt McDonald, a senior adviser, told me. But in constantly alternating among story lines in order to respond to changing events and to gain traction with voters, the “true character” of a once-crisply-defined political figure has become increasingly murky.

(Steven Stark, Boston Phoenix)

NOVEMBER 5 -- There was Wilson over Hughes. And, of course, Truman over Dewey. But there's never been a surprise in presidential politics like the one that awaited Americans this morning, who woke up to discover that, somehow, John McCain had been elected president over Barack Obama... Of course, Wednesday-morning quarterbacking is ridiculously easy, but in retrospect, what happened should have been crystal clear: Obama's lead was never as great as the media hype that accompanied it -- he only led by two to six points in some major tracking polls. In several of them, Obama tellingly never cleared 50 percent. (There was a larger-than-usual undecided vote.) And whether it was the so-called "Bradley effect" (suggesting a racial element to the vote) or something else, Obama performed last night exactly as he often had in the spring against Hillary Clinton: he ran below expectations. Meanwhile, the tsunami of youth support for Obama never materialized. Instead, it was the over-65 crowd who turned out as if the election were a five-o'clock dinner special, and who voted in record numbers for their fellow senior citizen.

(Charles Mahtesian, Politico)

Nearly everyone in a position to know thinks the race for Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes is considerably tighter than what recent polls reveal. “There’s a tendency in Pennsylvania for the polls to change dramatically in the final days,” says John Brabender, a top Republican political consultant based in Pittsburgh. “In the governor’s race in 2002, there were polls just a few days out showing [Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell] with a 25-point lead and he ended up losing 50 of 67 counties and won by nine points.” I don’t believe there’s a double-digit lead,” said Jon Delano, a western Pennsylvania-based political analyst who also serves as an adjunct professor of Public Policy and Politics at Carnegie Mellon University. “The history of the presidential elections here is different.” Even top Democrats concede that McCain’s deficit in the polls — 11 percentage points, according to the latest Real Clear Politics polling average — isn’t a solid indicator of his chances of carrying the state. On Tuesday, CNN reported that an anxious Rendell had sent two recent memos to the Obama campaign requesting that the Democratic nominee spend more time campaigning in Pennsylvania.

(Froma Harrop, Providence Journal)

For the longest time, I was sitting on the fence, as were many centrists. A former Hillary Clinton supporter, I was bothered by Barack Obama's thin résumé, his rock-star rallies and the sexism tolerated by his campaign. At the same time, I admired McCain for his fiscal rectitude, history of bipartisanship and concern over global warming. That the right wing despised him for several high-profile breaks with the Bush administration -- notably on torture and the early tax cuts -- was a plus... What happened, Mark? Sarah Palin happened. Independents like me wanted two things out of a McCain running mate. (1) A capable leader who could step into the top job should something happen to the not-very-young No. 1. (2) Someone who would temper McCain's recent efforts to woo social conservatives. They got neither in the Alaska governor... Independents tend to be fiscally conservative, socially liberal and strong on defense. They were McCain's natural constituency and in mid-September gave him a 13-point margin. That lead has since flipped over to Obama, and Palin is a big reason. The choice of her as McCain's VP would have been politically brilliant had a Democrat made it.

(Patrick Healy and Michael Luo, New York Times)

Sarah Palin’s wardrobe joined the ranks of symbolic political excess on Wednesday, alongside John McCain’s multiple houses and John Edwards’s $400 haircut, as Republicans expressed fear that weeks of tailoring Ms. Palin as an average “hockey mom” would fray amid revelations that the Republican Party outfitted her with expensive clothing from high-end stores... Republicans expressed consternation publicly and privately that the shopping sprees on her behalf, which were first reported by Politico, would compromise Ms. Palin’s standing as Senator McCain’s chief emissary to working-class voters whose salvos at the so-called cultural elite often delight audiences at Republican rallies... Such an image is unhelpful at this late stage of the general election, Republicans said, especially when many families are experiencing economic pain, and when the image applies to a candidate, like Ms. Palin, who has run for office in part on her appeal as an outdoors enthusiast and former small-town mayor who scorns pretensions. 

(David E. Sanger, New York Times)

Mr. McCain’s campaign portrays him as an experienced warrior who knows how to win wars and carries Theodore Roosevelt’s big stick, even if he occasionally strays from Roosevelt’s advice about speaking softly. Mr. Obama’s campaign portrays him as a cerebral advocate of patient diplomacy, the antidote to the unilateral excesses of the Bush years, who knows how to build partnerships without surrendering American interests. But as the campaign has unfolded, both men have been forced into surprising detours. They may have formed their worldviews in Hanoi and Jakarta, but they forged specific positions amid the realities of an election in post-Iraq, post-crash America — where judgment sometimes collides with political expediency. The result has included contradictions that do not fit the neat hawk-and-dove images promoted by each campaign. As spelled out in presidential debates, in written answers provided by their campaigns, and in an interview with Mr. McCain in January, some of their views appear as messy and unpredictable as the troubles one of them will inherit.

(Matthew Benjamin and Ryan J. Donmoyer, Bloomberg News)

Taxes are dominating debate in the final weeks of a presidential campaign consumed by the economy, with Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain each making claims that are misleading or false. McCain distorts Obama's voting record on middle-class tax increases. Obama puts a sinister spin on McCain's proposed corporate tax cuts. The candidates exaggerate the opposing plan's costs, and gloss over unappealing aspects of their own platforms. "Both John McCain and Barack Obama endlessly repeat tax talking points that are disingenuous at best, outright falsehoods at worst,'' said Paul Caron, associate dean of faculty at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, who tracks the candidates' tax plans. Overall, McCain's campaign has gone farther in refusing to let facts get in the way of political attacks. The University of Pennsylvania's nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check project says persistent Republican misrepresentations of Obama's tax proposals constitute a "pattern of deceit.''

(Christi Parsons and John McCormick, Chicago Tribune)

Barack Obama's mother was an adventurous woman who took her son around the globe. His grandmother was a rock of stability, giving him the American roots that would ground his teenage years as well as his career in politics. His mother died too young to see him become a U.S. senator, much less the Democratic nominee in the 2008 presidential election and someone who could become the first African American to win the White House. Now, just two weeks before the election of his life, that other maternal figure -- Madelyn Dunham, who helped raise him -- is in such fragile health that family members are gathering at her bedside in Honolulu. The nation hasn't really met this important figure in Obama's life. Dunham, who will turn 86 on Sunday, has rarely spoken to the press, and she doesn't appear at campaign events or important ceremonies. Yet she is an integral part of his story, a woman he speaks of often when he's campaigning. He has invoked memories of her at his most crucial moments in politics, notably when dealing with the complex multicultural tapestry that is his personal narrative. Those close to Obama say she is more than just a part of that story; she's part of his personality -- a towering image reflected in her grandson right alongside that of her daughter, his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.

(Michael Leahy, Washington Post)

Some of his advisers thought his vacillation over what to do about the Keating controversy reflected an internal conflict of their boss -- between his philosophical preference for public openness and his private fury anytime he felt his dignity trampled, an anger that sometimes revealed itself in his walling himself off from anyone who crossed him. But as the Keating crisis played out, they concluded that to frame the shifting tides of his nature this way was to miss the real point about McCain: that, at his best and worst, he was driven mostly by defiance in the face of pressure... If anything at all was slowly changing in McCain, it was the new priority he assigned to pragmatism, accommodation and self-preservation... Under the stress of his political nightmare now, he exhibited the first signs of a self-reevaluation. The means and manner of McCain's political resuscitation during the weeks that followed provided a window to his emerging style amid controversy -- his zest for the big gamble, the aggressive push-back while his similarly beleaguered Keating Five colleagues took refuge behind closed doors, his deftness in recasting himself as a chastened reformer and his skill in turning a potentially disastrous setback to his advantage.