Election 2008

Gerald Herbert/AP

Debating the Wisdom of McCain’s Call to Suspend Campaigning

September 25, 2008 03:15 PM
by Josh Katz
After Obama’s rejection of McCain’s proposal to postpone Friday’s presidential debate, analysts have discussed the prudence of McCain’s move.

McCain Calls Timeout

In a statement yesterday, Ariz. Sen. John McCain said he will put his campaign on hold to address the current economic crisis. His opponent, Ill. Sen. Barack Obama, has rejected Sen. McCain’s request, however, asserting that the debate is important at such a fragile time.

“It’s my belief that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who, in approximately 40 days, will be responsible for dealing with this mess,” Sen. Obama said from Florida Wednesday. “It’s going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”

It has become clear that no consensus has developed to support the Administration’s proposal,” McCain said when announcing his campaign stoppage. “I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time,” The Washington Post reported.

The move was praised by some as dedication to solving the country’s immediate economic problems, and disparaged by others as a cheap ploy to win votes.

The two candidates are also scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon at the White House with President George W. Bush and other congressional leaders to discuss the economic crisis. President Bush mentioned the leadership meeting during his televised speech Wednesday night on the causes of the economic emergency and the need for his $700 Wall Street bailout plan.

McCain missed his scheduled appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” Wednesday night to travel to Washington.

McCain’s statement came as Congress was debating the bailout package. The Wall Street Journal writes: “Both candidates have been put into difficult situations: to oppose the package could appear irresponsible in the face of financial turmoil, but support is dicey without a broad national consensus that has not yet materialized.”

Opinion & Analysis: McCain’s action under the microscope

In his Washington Post blog, Don Feaver notes how lopsided the reader comments were on his blog entry critiquing McCain’s maneuver. As an example, he quotes a post from “alexandav” that read: “How is McCain going to ‘solve’ the bailout bill? He isn’t in the majority, he isn’t in the executive branch, he isn’t in Republican leadership, and he isn’t on the relevant committees … I frankly don’t want a man who thought the fundamentals of our economy were sound 8 days ago directing or even giving input on how to fix the very obviously broken economy.”

Regardless of how the analysts feel about McCain’s efforts to cancel the debate, the move is certainly historic. Sidney Kraus, an emeritus professor at Cleveland State University and a presidential debate historian, said, “It is not unusual for the candidates to disagree over the place or the time, even after they’ve agreed to be there. But we’ve never had anything remotely like this,” he told Salon.

In that Salon article, writer Walter Shapiro says he does not have confidence that the debate will proceed on Friday. At this point, McCain would appear “weak” if he backtracked on his statement and went through with it, following Obama’s response. He also notes that delaying the debate might not be about Republican apprehension regarding McCain’s speech, but about fears regarding running mate Sarah Palin’s readiness. “At a time when the Republican campaign only puts Palin forward in tightly scripted settings, delaying her rendezvous with Biden would inevitably give rise to speculation that the first-term Alaska governor had yet to master her briefing books.”

In the Kansas City Star’s TV Barn blog, Aaron Barnhart puts the focus on McCain, and suggests that his decision might be a tactical move because debates are not his strong suit. McCain excels in the town hall forum setting, instead. If McCain is successful in calling off Friday’s debate, “that would leave just two scheduled opportunities for his opponent to engage him directly on national television … and one of them would be a town hall meeting,” according to Barnhart.

The most common criticism of McCain is that the suspension is a campaign ploy at a time when polls suggest that the Arizona senator might be losing ground to Obama. The Swamp points out the results of a Sept. 19–22 survey indicating that 47 percent of the 1,003 surveyed adults thought Obama could handle the financial crisis better than McCain, while only 37 percent chose McCain. “Among independent voters, it’s Obama 44, McCain 30 on that question.”

John Dickerson of Slate argues that McCain’s move is unquestionably about politics, because, “In a presidential campaign, the surest sign that a candidate is playing politics on an issue is when he claims not to be playing politics on an issue.” But, he asserts, this is what the McCain campaign does. McCain has tried to shake the election up several times, notably with the selection of Gov. Palin as his vice-presidential candidate, and if the newest attempt fails there is no doubt they will try another “stunt” in the future, Dickerson writes.

William Kristol of the Weekly Standard disagrees. Appearing presidential is the key to winning a race between two senators, he says, and if McCain can help forge a deal in Washington this week, then “he’ll benefit politically, and he deserves to. For McCain will have acted presidentially in the campaign—which some voters, quite reasonably, will think speaks to his qualifications to be president.” Kristol goes on to say that the media places too much weight on the debates anyway, and a “dramatic action,” could have more impact on the election.

Rich Galen, a Republican strategist, also agreed that this could end very well for McCain. “It’s a brilliant stroke by McCain. You will have an empty chair debate in Oxford without McCain. And an empty chair at the White House economic negotiations without Obama,” he told Salon.

Newsday believes that a debate between the two candidates is now more necessary that ever. However, the paper does not think the debate should focus on foreign policy. Instead, “the forum should address the ominous domestic financial crisis that threatens the world’s markets.”

David Gerstein of Forbes sees Obama’s decision to proceed with the debate as a gamble, as well. But he thinks it’s a “smart gamble.” McCain is considered the more seasoned foreign policy and security expert, but Gerstein says Obama doesn’t have to win the debate to be successful. Instead, Obama needs to “demonstrate the same kind of strength, discipline and savvy in the debate itself—and do what it takes to steal the ‘win’ on foreign policy that McCain should and must claim.”

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