Wall Street's Misery Could Be Obama's Salvation

Will the meltdown on Wall Street save Barack Obama?

It might. If he wins, he should thank Lehman Brothers and AIG for lighting the way. Their misery could be his salvation. Such is the reality of national politics.

Of course, no one wants to see financial giants collapse, even loyal Democrats desperate for this race to move from a discussion of lipstick and pigs to a real debate on the economy. But the way things were going (badly for Democrats, lets be honest), it took something big to change the dynamic of the race, which was heading in McCain’s direction.

This week of billionaire bailouts has been big. Obama went from being slightly behind in most national polls to slightly ahead, and while no one will know until election day whether those polls accurately reflect the universe of voters in 2008, or whether voters are telling pollsters the truth about who they’re for, the trends still matter.

It’s a little like your old bathroom scale. The number may be off, but you can be pretty certain that whatever it is, you’re gaining when it’s going up and losing when it’s going down. Candidates, of course, are not dieters. They want to go up, not down. Until the last few days, the trend lines on Obama were flat at best, and declining at worst. Now that the economy is collapsing, he’s getting his legs back.

Even so, it is way too soon for Democrats to start picking out those drapes for the West Wing. Just as Democrats harbor economic turndowns, Republicans harbor renewed threats of terrorism. But make no mistake: just as the bad economy helps Obama, a renewed focus on terror would help McCain. Does that mean that the GOP types are out there praying for a message from Usama? Of course not, no more than yellow dog Democrats are praying for economic hard times. But reality is what it is. The minute foreign policy or national security take the place of the economy on the front pages, you’ll see McCain’s numbers go up. Could happen.

Moreover, even if the focus stays on the economy, there will be increasing pressure on both candidates to make clear exactly what they would do about the current crisis, and who will pay for it, and why it will not leave them unable to fund the new programs or enact the tax cuts they’ve promised.

The problem with economic collapses, as the savings and loan debacle so pointedly proved, is that it is very difficult to cast those fingers of blame when everybody is in the sewer together. How did financial institutions manage to convince Congress to all but eliminate the regulatory system so they would have the possibility of doing so much better, or so much worse? How do you think? Money talks.

I remember, many campaigns ago, trying to make an issue out of the savings and loan collapse only to discover that some of our best friends, as well as our worst enemies, were among the top recipients of donations from the newest bad guys. Hello John McCain, to be sure. But hello to John Glenn as well. One of the most frustrating things for reform-minded, Common Cause Democrats like myself is the reality that so long as candidates from both parties are engaged in an arms race for money, big and smart donors will give to both sides, buying them both influence and protection.

The Republicans will blame the Democrats because Fannie and Freddie are chock-a-block full of well-known Democrats; the Democrats will blame the Republicans for all their friends on Wall Street. But who is kidding whom? Republicans have friends at Fannie too, just as Democrats do on Wall Street. How would anyone raise all that money otherwise? I have been having the same conversation for years, every time there is a major collapse like this, about why these should be “Democratic issues” but our dependence on big money ties our hands. Obama may be new to Washington, but he’s raised plenty of big money in just a few years, and so has Joe Biden, and so has John McCain. No wonder it’s Sarah Palin who has taken up the call against billionaire bailouts. You don’t need Wall Street money to run in Alaska.

The debates, of course, are coming, and the economic uncertainty of the last week should only increase the attention that will be paid to them. Presidential debates can be snoozers, full of single and doubles which leave everybody believing that their candidate “won,” meaning that the race is in the same place after the debate as it was before. Or there can be moments that live on in infamy, and on YouTube, where blowouts become competitive races (Bush’s weak performance at the first debate last time), or close races become blowouts (Reagan v. Carter in 1976), or the floor just falls out from under you as the candidate confirms the worst fears raised by his opponent (did someone say something about the candidate’s wife being raped and killed?). It’s part of the fun, or the excitement, or the drama, or the nail biting uncertainty of this democracy of ours. And there’s plenty of it still to come between now and election day.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.