The McCain Trap and Obama's Debate Challenge

10/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Co-authored by Kathleen Frumkin

John McCain knew that there would be no bailout agreement before he announced that he would go to Washington, supposedly to help promote such an agreement in the spirit of bipartisanship. We smell a trap. Bush, Paulson, and the Congressional Republicans lure the Democrats (and Obama) into supporting a proposal based on a taxpayer bailout of Wall Street. The Congressional Republicans then come out as apparent populists riding the wave of a taxpayer revolt against Wall Street and they identify the Democrats and Obama as supporters of Wall Street. McCain can then come to the debate and say:

1. that he is a maverick for not supporting the Bush proposal,
2. that he is a populist for being against a bailout by taxpayers,
3. that real populism is cutting taxes and getting rid of regulation, which is the Republican proposal, and
4. that this is "real reform".

If Obama just says the Republican proposal won't work (following Paulson and Bernanke), he will still be tagged as an elitist friend of Wall Street. The debate will not have time to go into the details of why economists say it won't work, and McCain can emerge smelling like a populist rose.

Of course, Obama is the real populist here, insisting on conditions to help homeowners and to return the money to taxpayers by giving the government equity in the corporations. McCain can simply call this socialism and more big government.

Obama has to undercut this possibility from the start. He has to come out with the populist proposals as central and the question of who pays and how as a technical economic question that cannot be solved by partisan ideology. He also has to characterize the Republican proposal to cut regulation and corporate taxes as even more as more of what got us into this mess. And he has to say out loud that McCain knew about the breakdown of negotiations before he went to Washington, and that the trip was an attempt to revive a failing campaign.

In the foreign policy segment, Obama has to avoid helping McCain. McCain will claim that "the surge worked." Obama should come out calling the surge from the start of the discussion "a political failure", and later mention that it has been only a partial security success -- partial because, in any other country, over 100 attacks a month would be called impermissible violence, and that's how many attacks the surge has resulted in. Given that we have 12 times the population of Iraq, that would be like having 1200 bombings a month in America. Would you call that "working" if it occurred here?

Obama needs a response to McCain's call for "victory." A possible response is "Victory over who?" "What enemies would you sign a peace treaty with?" The people of Iraq? They mostly want us to leave, as does the elected government.

Obama also has to take the foreign policy debate out of the purely military arena, and talk about the hardest problems in the world that cannot be solved by military means: global warming, global economic issues and poverty, hunger, the oppression of women, ethic cleansing, water, and so on. Our troops, as great as they are, cannot solve most foreign policy problems. Foreign policy requires president with vision in all these areas.