Now and then, even in the craziness of a late-stage presidential campaign, the clouds of rumor and allegation, and the charges and countercharges all the stuff Ross Perot used to call "monkey dust" will clear for a moment and a blinding moment of clarity will distill the essence of the situation.
That happened Monday morning in Virginia Beach. Republican nominee John McCain, in his latest attempt to restart a faltering effort, said the following about the U.S. at the end of the Bush years. Keep in mind as you read this that McCain is the nominee of the incumbent party:
"Our economy is in crisis. Financial markets are collapsing. Credit is drying up. Your savings are in danger. Your retirement is at risk. Jobs are disappearing. The cost of health care, your children's college, gasoline and groceries are rising all the time with no end in sight. While your most important asset your home is losing value every day."
And, oh yes: "Americans are fighting in two wars."
At least there was no plague of frogs. McCain is running in a relay, and the man who is supposed to hand him the baton is 80 yards up the track, carrying a dishwasher on his back, blindfolded. Oh, and he's also dead.
Forget Sarah Palin and William Ayers and disaffected Hillary voters and the rest of this year's sideshows. Focus on the basics: any candidate seeking to extend his party's hold on the White House who must deliver a litany like that three weeks from Election Day is in a world of hurt.
Not that McCain has made it any easier for himself. Over the weekend, the Republican nominee convened an economic strategy session after last week's attempt to paint Democrat Barack Obama as a pal of terrorists largely fizzled. But nothing new came out of the event. And so what was billed as the candidate's big relaunching was, in terms of substance, a collection of things McCain has been saying already but this time said in a really gloomy, harrowing way.
"The hour is late; our troubles are getting worse; our enemies watch," McCain declared. "We have to act immediately. We have to change direction now. We have to fight." True, when it came to his own campaign effort, he tried for a trace of bravado, saying, "We're 6 points down. The national media has written us off ... My friends, we've got them just where we want them!"
And he ended on the same sustained note of fortitude that moved the Republican National Convention five weeks ago: "Don't give up hope. Be strong. Have courage. And fight. Fight for a new direction for our country. Fight for what's right for America," and so on through a rousing finish.
But there's more than one kind of rousing. The last night at the Alamo was also stirring. Some rousing speeches were delivered in the trenches of the Somme. Given the dreadful litany that began his address, McCain couldn't quite shake the shadow of existential gloom.
The one fresh move McCain made in his Monday speech was to try to add Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to Obama's team. Given how deeply unpopular Congress is, trying to present himself as a positive vote for divided government makes sense. But why did he wait until he was so close to the finish line to try it? And how will his fellow congressional Republicans running tight races take to being thrown under the bus like that?
Meanwhile, Obama had actually cooked up some new economic proposals, which he unveiled in Toledo, Ohio, in his unhurried way. Why hurry when the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll has you ahead by 10 points and your favorability rating on the rise? Obama didn't have to wait for anyone to hand him a baton. He just set off two years ago at a steady pace and has run his own race ever since.
Economists can argue over the efficacy of Obama's plans, but they had the advantage of being easily understood in a world full of mysterious catastrophes. Obama proposed tax breaks for businesses that create new jobs, a freeze on foreclosures by banks that participate in the government's rescue program and a public-works fund to rebuild the nation's infrastructure while keeping people employed. He embraced McCain's proposal to suspend the rule that would require retirees to start liquidating their 401(k) holdings at the bottom of the stock-market crash. And he went a step further, proposing that Americans should be able to withdraw some of those retirement savings without penalty during the economic crisis.
His speech had holes in it. For example, Obama talked about the need to "break" the "cycle of debt." Said Obama: "Our long-term future requires that we do what's necessary to scale down our deficits." Yet he didn't give any sense of how this new austerity might force him to scale back some of his most sweeping, costly proposals.
The reason: he didn't need to. Not when McCain is giving speeches like the one he delivered today and dealing with the troubling facts laid out in it.