In the Headlights

“Thank God for the crises. They have brought America’s presidential candidates closer to us than they would like.” That is the verdict of former Die Zeit US correspondent Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff on how the latest US financial crisis has let us all see Messrs. Obama and McCain, namely under pressure and with their hair down. That evaluation comes at the very end of his recent article (In the headlights of the crises), and the conclusions he draws, at least, rather differ from what one would ordinarily have been led to expect.

(By the way, Kleine-Brockhoff’s name translates into something like “small crumb-court”! Was that the name he was assigned as a child, and then no one bothered to update it – e.g. to “big crumb-court,” or maybe just “crumb-court” – when he got older?)

First John McCain: His campaign narrative would have you believe that he is the calm, wise statesman from Arizona. But his behavior over the past week as the financial crisis has unfolded, in Kleine-Brockhoff’s eyes, has shown him as anything but:

On Monday he claims that the economy is strong and the fundamentals good. On Tuesday he opines that the fundamentals are in order, but the economy is in crisis. He proposes a bi-partisan commission to get to the bottom of the crisis, but then never mentions this commission again. He turns against the support-action for the insurance-giant AIG. When the federal government unveils an aid-action for AIG, he turns prudent and allows that it was inevitable. . . . On Thursday he demands that the chief of the financial market controllers [i.e. of the SEC], Christopher Cox, be fired, a man that he had never criticized before and whom he as president could not fire at all. Shortly thereafter he calls Cox a “good man” and mentions his demand for his resignation no more. When the Bush administration on Friday makes known its support-plan for the entire financial market, McCain praises it. He himself on the same day new proposed laws to regulate the finance markets, although he has been known nationwide for decades as a deregulator. On Sunday the next salvo: Now he criticizes the government’s rescue plan. For this Newsweek names McCain “Uncle Ziggy,” [or in German] Onkel Zick-Zack.

But maybe it is just the pressure of economic crisis that has temporarily fried his brain? No, says Kleine-Brockhoff, it seems all of a piece with McCain’s previous behavior and policies: the approval for the build-up of troops in Iraq [here he must be referring to that famous “surge”], and also his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, what Kleine-Brockhoff terms a choice-of-highest-risk (Höchstrisikoauswahl), made after McCain had had almost half a year to consider it. Not to mention his behavior during the Georgia crisis of early August – centuries ago, it seems – when Kleine-Brockhoff recalls that he was all-too-quick to figure out who was to blame for it and to declare “We are all Georgians.” In Kleine-Brockhoff’s eyes, there is certainty only about one thing that John McCain offers to American voters: uncertainty. He calls him a “jerk-politician” (Ruck-Politiker), but don’t get all up-in-arms, you McCain supporters: the “jerk” he means here is not the word meaning, roughly, “twit,” but rather meaning “sudden movement.”

Barack Obama’s behavior in the harsh light of the ongoing crisis comes off little better, but in the other direction: he is, in Kleine-Brockhoff’s estimation, “careful to the point of tedium.” Again, this might be surprising, as he is supposed to be the big harbinger of “Change,” and therefore you would think that all the financial turmoil – as Kleine-Brockhoff puts it, “America looking like a bankrupt banana-republic” – would be to his advantage. If it is, he surely has not seized it. No attacks on the other side; declining to issue comments on the administration’s rescue plan. “He behaved as if he were already President,” Kleine-Brockhoff writes – maybe that’s not such a bad thing, yet he instead cites and agrees with the assessment of Obama by Christopher Hitchens in a recent article in Slate, that he is being “vapid and hesitant and gutless.”

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