John McCain, with polls showing a shift to Obama, and with blame for the current financial crisis being placed on the GOP, decided to suspend his campaign, and ask for a delay for the debate scheduled for Friday. As Sarah Palin bombed an interview with Katie Couric, the McCain camp argued that the Presidential debate scheduled for Friday should replace the scheduled Vice Presidential debate, which would be rescheduled for “sometime.” That would give Palin, who except for limited exceptions is being kept under lock and key from the press in a way that shows an almost insane paranoia about what she’ll say, more time to prep for a debate. All of this suggests McCain knows he’s in trouble, and is trying to find some magic bullet to change the momentum.
Obama, of course, is having none of it. If he were to agree to suspend his campaign, it would be a victory for McCain. McCain would be seen to have been the leader — he had the idea, and Obama followed — and it would be a major change in conversation at a time when Obama is moving forward. At this stage in the campaign, when strategies are set, only a candidate who perceives he’s in trouble wants to shake things up this way. The most bizarre request was for a cessation in advertising. It’s as if McCain wanted to say that because of the mistakes made by government and big money over thirty years we should stop having a discussion about the best way to move forward. Instead, let’s hunker down in the Capital and talk with other politicians and focus on simply passing a bill.
The truth, of course, is that John McCain can’t really do any more good in Washington than on the campaign trail. He can talk with Senators, advisers, and staff from anywhere in the country. Moreover, the last time such a strategy was used was when President Carter at first didn’t want to campaign until all the hostages were released from Iran during the I980 campaign. That didn’t work and he had to go on the campaign trail, politics doesn’t allow candidates to call “time out” at their whim. If McCain were serious, he’d have suggested when Obama and McCain were talking that they do this together, to really put it above politics. To make the first move and “challenge” Obama makes it blatantly and undeniably a political ploy — Obama has to aggressively point that out.
Yet, as with the gamble in picking Sarah Palin, McCain is going for something dramatic to alter the dynamics of the race. His campaign probably figured that in a best case scenario Obama would follow suit and they’d be able to declare they led, and change the tone of the conversation completely. In a worst case scenario they may figure they can fight to a draw by claiming McCain is putting country over campaign, and thus is the kind of person Americans need.
McCain does not get to script this for the opposition and pundits, however. The Democrats, recognizing that this is a ploy, are not about to roll over. Obama has the mostly positive message: Now is the time for a debate, now is the time to have the leaders discuss the future, talk to the American people, and not escape to the comfort of the Capital. He’s probably been as negative as he will be in noting that the President cannot drop everything for one problem.
Biden should be sharper. He should hint that McCain has “panicked” and note that the timing of when this suddenly became a crisis for McCain coincided with dropping poll numbers. In DC Democrats should follow the lead of Harry Ried: McCain can’t do any good simply being here, that’s not how the Senate works, etc. Moreover, since the Democrats are the majority party, they can assure that McCain does not get credit for any sort of solution to this, and won’t be able to trumpet himself as the savoir of the deal. That would even be tough if the GOP had the majority!
The pundits should point out that as bad as this is, it’s a financial mess that has been a long time in building, and which will take awhile to correct. It’s not something a quick bit of legislation will fix, it’s in the corporate culture, the consumer culture that defines our society, and embedded in our financial regulations and institutions. One can do more to address the entire problem by remaining engaged with the American people than by sitting in smoke filled rooms in the Capital, talking with other politicians.
To be sure, he could pull it off. He’ll coordinate with President Bush to have the latter call for both candidates to return to Washington. Obama has to respond aggressively. That’s the “old politics” — a problem comes up, then stop talking to the American people and retreat into the marble buildings to work out deals to cover up past mistakes. Talking about it and debating it in front of the American people would require having to take responsibility and show accountability. How could this happen in the eigth year of President Bush’s Administration without the President having to be held to the fire for not being prepared? How could people like John McCain, no stranger to scandal at financial institutions, talk about the “fundamentals being strong” and “free market solutions” for so long without having to tell the American people why. To hide behind vague promises of “working on the economy” and “creating legislation” is only a method to distract from the tough questions and evade responsibility. That’s the same old politics.
Obama will have to focus on the economy, show he is taking it seriously, and get a lot of support from colleagues in Washington. But if he does that, McCain will start to look a bit ridiculous. If it takes a long time to work out a compromise and McCain seemingly plays no major role, he will look like he panicked. If the public discourse looks at this less like ‘putting American first’ and more like ‘grandstanding’ or ‘reacting to polls,’ he’ll squander anything he gained at the GOP convention.
Of course, this could be an effort to nix the VP debate, as it appears Palin is not quite as ready for prime time as many Republicans thought. As time passes and she is kept in a kind of cone of silence most of the time, it becomes obvious she’s more image than substance. She has a compelling story, is attractive, and something fresh. But that does not a Vice President make.
To be sure this is a major crisis, on that McCain is correct. Anyone reading my blogs over the past summer know I have long believed we’re facing a severe crisis in the US. But it isn’t a crisis that can be fixed with one bailout, it’s not a crisis that requires just legislation. It is a crisis with structural, spiritual, and societal dimensions. It’s how our economy is built, what our values are, and the way consumerism and easy credit has eroded the social fabric and our capacity to keep capitalism on an even keel. No legislation is going to address this, this bailout, as huge as it sounds, is only the first step. McCain is treating it like it is a one time crisis that if he pass something, will make things alright. In that he is fundamentally wrong, and sending the wrong message by heading back to Washington.
I think he knows that. This is politics, it’s a campaign in trouble, trying a hail Mary pass to change the conversation from one that threatens not only McCain but vast numbers of Republicans on the ballot in November, to something else. It won’t work. In the past I’ve compared the 2008 election to that of 1980, with Obama the Democratic Reagan. I’m starting to think this may be more like the 1932 election, with Obama in the role of Roosevelt.