10/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Limits of the Culture War

These are turbulent days for an Obama Democrat with investments in the market. A spate of good polls and bad charts. You need equanimity to avoid excess giddiness or fear -- or a weird mix of both at the same time.

But one thing is clear: The Wall Street crisis rips a huge hole in McCain's campaign strategy. And not just because Democrats generally poll better on the economy. No, McCain intentionally sacrificed his credibility with the press in a way that may now destroy him.

By choosing Palin and going transparently negative, McCain and Schmidt gambled on a culture war strategy: ignore the media "filter," use conservative outlets and word-of-mouth to paint the Democrat as a weak elitist who disdains traditional values. The strategy worked for Bush in 2004, and it might have worked this time, too.

But now McCain needs the public to buy a sudden conversion to economic populism, a panicked embrace of financial regulation. Difficult in any circumstance, this maneuver now takes place in the context of an antagonistic press. Last week, we saw the "narrative" of McCain's dishonesty and opportunism take hold. This week, we find McCain falsifying his record in response to a crisis.

One can imagine the Bush-era press letting a conservative get away with such a move. But McCain overplayed his hand, lying so transparently that reporters felt insulted. Perhaps more importantly, the media itself cares rather deeply about the viability of our financial markets.

"Integrity" was never more than a marketing ploy adopted by McCain in the aftermath of the Keating 5 scandal. But this week, I'll bet he wishes he'd stuck with it.