And there's no clear end in sight. The economy is in the ditch, and while neither candidate seems particularly expert in economics, Obama has some very competent people on his economic team, while McCain has the bad fortune of having surrounded himself with precisely the kind of people who have helped cause the problem, like former Sen. Phil Gramm, and the kind of people whom Americans are disgusted with, like lobbyist Rick Davis and golden-parachuted CEO Carly Fiorina.
Conservatives of the old school are in revolt over Gov. Sarah Palin, Republicans can't get their act together, and even the most superstitious/anxious/cynical Democrats are having to shake themselves to avoid visions of premature inauguration.
So what does the McCain camp do? It sends out Gov. Palin as the bait in two distinct traps, extremely attractive to Democrats and extremly, extremely deadly.
Discerning Democratic mice will resist the urge to pounce on this tasty morsel of Palin provolone.
First Trap: Red Meat
In case you haven't seen the latest installment of the gift that keeps on giving, watch the video above as Katie Couric unrolls a few more lengths of rope for Palin to use to hang herself.
Of course, I think much of what Palin has to say is ridiculous, but more than that, I think the way she says it illustrates just how unready she is even to be a part of this campaign, let alone to lead America, and thus the world.
But step back from this for a minute and think about the dangers this interview poses for Democrats. Here are big hunks of juicy tidbits that voters, columnists, bloggers, and pundits can't resist -- ABORTION!!! BIRTH CONTROL!!! HOMOSEXUALITY!!! RELIGION!!!
But I believe it would be an absolute mistake to take the bait, and here's why. For starters, these aren't far-out wacky views, or at least if they are, they're held by a substantial number of Americans. America's largest Protestant denomination -- the Southern Baptists, with 16.2 million members -- and the Roman Catholic Church in America accounts for one quarter of our population. Guess what these denominations teach? That abortion is murder, the morning-after pill is murder, and homosexuality is a choice. This is to say nothing of the Assemblies of God, Churches of God, Disciples of Christ, et alii.
Unless people think that somehow Democrats can win with skeptics, atheists, and Unitarians, there's got to be a place at the table for people of all beliefs and traditions. These issues just aren't the most important ones in America.
That brings me to my second reason to avoid the culture-war bait. When the national conversation gets bogged down in the culture wars, Democrats lose. It's not necessarily because half the country agrees with Palin. It's that people who disagree with her can never be as forceful as those who agree with her. If you don't think that the morning-after pill is murder or that being gay is a chosen abomination, you'll never be able to match passions with people who do. (Unless, perhaps, you are gay without equal rights or unexpectedly pregnant without access to an early-term abortion, which certainly must account for a minority of Americans.)
To put it another way, most potential Democratic voters don't go to sleep at night thinking, "Man, I could really use an abortion," or, "Gosh, I wish I could have a gay marriage." For that matter, they don't go to sleep wondering just how stupid that Gov. Palin will look the next time she opens her mouth for a primetime interview or a cheesesteak sandwich.
They go to sleep wondering how they're going to pay for their health insurance, how they'll keep their jobs, what will happen to their folks when they get older and dont't have nursing home insurance, and whether their sons and daughters will ever come home safely from two wars that seem to have no end. So if the Democrats spend all their time talking to American voters about how they'll give them evolution education and the morning-after pill, voters will tune it out the way I tune out the infomercials for the Jack Lelane Juicer I don't need.
Polling shows this. Go back and look at where the McCain-Palin ticket stood in the polls when the national narrative was about "lipstick on a pig" and Obama killing babies. Those conversations miss the voters you can get and really really energize the voters you hope stay home.
Liberals like Unitarian Keith Olbermann (whom I generally like) and agnostic Bill Maher (whom I don't), if they really support Barack Obama, do themselves no favors deriding not the extreme policies of the McCain/Palin ticket but the personal convictions of the members of that ticket, which untold millions of Americans share.
Serious-minded Democrats should distance themselves from these criticisms of Palin's no-doubt genuine religious views and keep the focus on the economy, the war, and the disaster that was the last eight years. If someone says, "I think all the gays are going to hell," say, "Terrific. How does that help you feed your family?"
Second Trap: Wounded Animal
The other snare Palin is setting with her Siren song is one of low expectations. President Bush has famously spoken of the "soft bigotry of low expectations," but in this case, I think the Republicans in the short-term only stand to gain from how little the country has come to expect from Gov. Palin.
We've already seen the McCain camp exploit these expectations once before. When McCain first named Palin right before his convention, bloggers and partisans nationwide spent four solid days denouncing the decision simultaneously as a boneheaded blunder and a self-serving stunt, rapidly firing every possible criticism at Palin to see what stuck. She was a book-banner! Her daughter was knocked up! The First Dude had a 20-year-old DUI! She'd fired someone for political reasons! People were running pools to see how long she'd survive on the Republican ticket.
And then what happened? She stood up and read a great speech from a teleprompter at the convention, and Democrats looked stupid. They'd made her look like a victim, a martyr, a working-class hero. Meanwhile, Gov. Palin -- still unqualified, mind you, and still extremely dangerous to our nation -- was innoculated from criticism for weeks to come.
It took CBS's Katie Couric (someone else who's faced the soft bigotry of low expectations) to really pull back the curtain on the Wizard to let American voters sneak a peek to observe what Democrats had ham-handedly tried to pound into their heads a month before: Palin was clueless.
But rather than having learned their lesson, Democrats (and some Republicans, by the way) are piling on again, Democrats gloating at how abysmal Palin is, Republicans fretting and begging her to fall on her moose gun for the good of party and country. The result is that come this Thursday night, when she has to debate Sen. Joe Biden in the vice-presidential face-off, expectations are set so low for her that if she manages not to trip or swear, she'll be hailed for proving those snobby elitist critics wrong again.
Moreover, wounded animals are always 100 times fiercer than animals in good shape, so I reckon that the wound-ier the McCain campaign gets, the more ferocious its attacks on Obama/Biden will become.
What's the right approach? I say back off and let Palin continue to write her own epitaph. The American people are not stupid. Between the War on Terror and the Terrible Economy, folks know that times are tough and fraught with the potential for disaster. They also know that John McCain is old and more likely to die in office than any president we've had at least since Franklin Roosevelt's fourth term. The more they see of Palin, the more even her admirers are going to realize, "Darn the luck, she seems like a swell lady, but we just don't have the luxury of rolling the dice on her."
Don't make her a martyr. Don't waste breath and column inches pointing out what Palin daily makes painfully obvious. Let Palin be Palin -- in fact, just let Palin be -- and let's take our argument for real, lasting Change to the American people, reminding them at every turn that John McCain isn't it.