McCain's debate ploy
Michael Tomasky - Guardian America
A move so unserious, contemptible and cynical that it's hard to imagine how they even thought of it
Since John McCain so desperately and obviously wanted to change the subject, permit me to begin by not taking the bait and not changing the subject.
Wednesday was the worst day of the campaign for McCain. The revelations about Rick Davis' firm doing lobbying work for Freddie Mac had the potential, and still may have the potential, to cost Davis his job. Certainly the story had the potential to eat up a lot of cable television time over the next two days. Over the long term, and most importantly, the story has the power, if used properly by the Democrats, to dissolve any morsel of credibility McCain had on the subject of dealing with the current fiscal crisis.
So keep that straight. The cable coverage of McCain's ridiculous gambit about suspending his campaign and delaying Friday night's debate is not making that link explicit, because that's just not the sort of thing television does except when it really slaps them in the face, like when Bill Clinton bombed Sudan the night the House of Representatives voted the impeachment articles.
But I can guarantee you, if you think the McCain brain trust wasn't manically trying to conjure up a way to wriggle out of the Davis mess and hand the media a new story to yak about, then I have a non-bridge in Alaska to non-sell you.
This was also the day when the Washington Post and ABC released a poll showing McCain nine points behind Barack Obama. On Hardball, Chris Matthews is, to his credit, making this connection: that McCain is changing the subject because he's dropping in the polls. In fact the desperation of McCain's move makes one think that maybe his own internal polls show a gloomier picture still.
What a joke. What an unserious and contemptible joke. And so typically dishonest. Now that Obama has spoken, we know that it was Obama who called McCain, first suggesting that the two issue a bipartisan joint statement on the crisis. This obviously got McCain and Steve Schmidt thinking. Hey, maybe we can put country first here and … oops, scratch that. Since we're in such a tight spot today anyway, maybe we can put naked politics first here and go public, steal his thunder, act like we were the white hats who came up with the idea. Yeah! And while we're at it, let's take it a step further. Let's don the sack cloth of piety and insist that we feel this is so important we even think the debate should be suspended.
Think about the kind of mind that's required to even think up something like this. I could never think up something like this. Most average people, of whatever political persuasion, could never do it. Some pundits are talking about desperation and Hail Mary passes and so on, but that doesn't really begin to describe the deviousness at work here.
This is like a man who gets caught cheating on his wife and then, with his back against the wall and with confrontation looming, goes out and intentionally wrecks the car, contriving to break a few ribs and get rushed to the hospital, all to delay the inevitable conflict and in the cynical knowledge that, in front of the doctors and until the wounds are bound, the wife will be forced to offer sympathy. Males are messed up creatures, but believe me, only a rather small percentage of us is really capable of thinking this connivingly.
Will it work? I don't think so. Granted, 98% of Americans don't know about the Rick Davis story, and probably around 90% don't know about the Washington Post poll. So some people may buy it. But I don't believe most will. It just looks too sneaky. Even if one doesn't smell desperation, the odor of weirdness is all over the move.
And it looks unpresidential. Obama came out and looked presidential. Presidents need to be able to handle two problems at once, he said. Now is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from us. We both have big planes. They can get us from Washington to Mississippi pretty quickly if need be. His press conference offered, in fact, a good look at how he would be as president. He seeks non-confrontation. But he slips his points in steadily and coolly. Pretty smooth performance.
And he seems to be winning. Perhaps inevitably, one polling outfit did a snap poll on all this. Results?
Hold the debate as scheduled: 50%
Hold it but focus on the economy not foreign policy: 36%.
Suspend campaigns: 14%
Continue campaign: 31%
Re-focus campaign: 48%
The commission on presidential debates stated shortly after Obama spoke that the debate will go on. If the commission says it and Obama says it, it will go on, I suspect. But we have yet to see which chess piece McCain moves next. Who can imagine that? Think of the most cynical thing you can think of, then double it.
Comic relief: Letterman lampoons McPalin's suspension:
Abraham Lincoln ran for re-election while leading the Union troops in the civil war. Franklin Roosevelt ran for re-election in the midst of terrible depression in 1936, a far worse economic crisis than we have right now, and in 1944 while prosecuting the second world war.
If John McCain can't debate while thinking about the country's economy, then he's even more ill-equipped to hold the job than I think he is. But of course he is capable of doing both. His proposal is not serious. It is just a rancidly political act. That he goes before cameras and tries to pass it off as nonpolitical, hoping that people will buy it, is what makes it contemptible.
When Mario Cuomo was governor of New York, he devoted a speech to improving the lot of children in New York state. He declared "The decade of the child." When, after a year or two, it became clear that somehow child poverty rates had stayed more or less the same, a joke began circulating around Albany: but he didn't mean this decade.
We've reached a similar point today, but far worse, because Cuomo's intentions were at least decent. John McCain's intentions have to do with nothing loftier than the next news cycle. He is the man who said country first. He just didn't mean this country.