Election 2008

Gerald Herbert/AP

McCain Back in the Debate, Optimistic About Bailout Plan

September 26, 2008 12:55 PM
by Josh Katz
The presidential debate on foreign policy will occur tonight in Mississippi as scheduled, and John McCain will be at the podium despite his earlier attempt to postpone the debate.

McCain Will Attend Debate; Statement Lambasts Obama

Ariz. Sen. John McCain’s campaign has indicated the candidate will participate in tonight’s presidential debate at the University of Mississippi. The statement issued by his campaign Friday morning asserts that the senator is “optimistic” that the parties will agree to a bailout agreement shortly, suggesting that there has been “significant progress” in the talks, according to The New York Times.

On Wednesday, Sen. McCain announced that he would travel to Washington to help deal with the economic crisis, and urged his opponent, Ill. Sen. Barack Obama, to agree to postpone the debate, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Sen. Obama had rejected McCain’s request on Wednesday to delay the debate, asserting that learning about the candidates in sucha way was 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,” 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.”

McCain’s statement Friday comes after a turbulent Thursday on Capitol Hill. In the afternoon, congressional leaders announced that they had decided on a bipartisan economic bailout bill, but later that night the agreement fell apart. House Republicans proposed their own alternate plan at a meeting attended by President George W. Bush, Obama, McCain and other congressional leaders, and Democrats blamed McCain for helping incite the Republican actions.

But the McCain statement lambasted Obama for his behavior during Thursday’s meeting, painting McCain as the candidate who advocated for a bipartisan deal. “The difference between Barack Obama and John McCain was apparent during the White House meeting yesterday where Barack Obama’s priority was political posturing in his opening monologue defending the package as it stands,” the statement said, according to The New York Times. “John McCain listened to all sides so he could help focus the debate on finding a bipartisan resolution that is in the interest of taxpayers and homeowners. The Democratic interests stood together in opposition to an agreement that would accommodate additional taxpayer protections.”

Opinion & Analysis: McCain’s move under the microscope

In his Washington Post blog, Don Feaver noted how lopsided the reader comments were on his blog entry critiquing McCain’s intital decision to not attend the debate. As an example, he quoted 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 felt about McCain’s efforts to cancel the debate, the move was 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 said he did not have confidence that the debate will proceed on Friday. 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 have been 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 put the focus on McCain, and suggested that his decision might have been a tactical move because debates are not his strong suit. McCain excels in the town hall forum setting, instead.

The most common criticism of McCain was that the suspension was a campaign ploy at a time when polls suggested that the Arizona senator might be losing ground to Obama. The Swamp pointed 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 argued that McCain’s move was 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 asserted, 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 disagreed. Appearing presidential is the key to winning a race between two senators, he said, and if McCain could have helped 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 went on to say that the media placed 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 believed that a debate between the two candidates is now more necessary that ever. However, the paper did 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 saw Obama’s decision to proceed with the debate as a gamble, as well. But he thought it was a “smart gamble.” McCain is considered the more seasoned foreign policy and security expert, but Gerstein said 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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