McCain's "Fundamentals of the Economy" Flub: A Revisionist View

Today the Times points to John McCain's statement as a gaffe that "fundamentally altered the dynamic of the race." But one Times writer characterized the resulting criticism as a "cheap shot."

The cover story of Wednesday's special Election section by Adam Nagourney, Jim Rutenberg, and Jeff Zeleny told the story of President-Elect Obama:"Near-Flawless Run From Start to Finish Is Credited in Victory." In the Times opinion, Obama was also helped along by one huge mistake by John McCain,one the reporterssay "fundamentally altered the dynamic of the race." But was it really a mistake?

According to the Times, thesignature mistake of McCain's campaignwas his "The fundamentals of the economy are strong" crack in a September 15 speech in Jacksonville, Fla., the day Lehman Brothers collapsed. The Times, along with the rest of the media, leaped on McCain's "gaffe" in a front-page story September 17.

But was McCain taken out of context? NYT/MSNBC contributor John Harwood thought so, even challenging his Times colleague Elisabeth Bumiller on MSNBC on September 16:

"When you listen to that sound-bite in its totality, isn't it a cheap shot to say that John McCain was bragging about how good the economy was to that crowd?"

McCain's comments from Jacksonvillein full:

People are frightened by these events. Our economy, I think still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong. But these are very, very difficult times. And I promise you we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street. We will reform government. And this is a failure.

ButWednesday's post-Election Daypost-mortem elided that context, simply filing away McCain's wrenched-from-context statement as an obvious oops:

It was the third week of September, and Senator John McCain was speaking to a nearly empty convention center in Jacksonville, Fla. Lehman Brothers had collapsed that day, a harrowing indicator of the coming financial crisis and a reminder that the presidential campaign was turning into a referendum on which candidate could best address the nation's economic challenges.

On stage, Mr. McCain, of Arizona, was trying to show concern for the prospect of hardship but also optimism about the country's resilience.

"The fundamentals of the economy are strong," he said.

A thousand miles away, at Senator Barack Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago, the aides who monitored Mr. McCain's every utterance knew immediately that they had just heard a potential turning point in a race that seemed to be tightening. They rushed out to tell Dan Pfeiffer, Mr. Obama's communications director, what Mr. McCain, the Republican candidate, had just said, knowing that his words could be used to portray him as out of touch.

"Shut up!" Mr. Pfeiffer said incredulously. "He said what?" Mr. Obama, who had just arrived at a rally in Colorado, hastily inserted the comments into his speech. And by nightfall, the Obama campaign had produced an advertisement that included video of Mr. McCain making the statement that would shadow him for the rest of the campaign.