Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Suspended Animation

Sorry I haven't blogged for a week, but I suspended my coverage of the campaign due to the economic crisis. Other bloggers put themselves first; I put my country first. How can I be blogging, in a fog of self-indulgence, when highly leveraged financial institutions run by altruistic billionaires are crashing all around me?

Now I return from my self-imposed exile, only to see John McCain stealing my idea. In case you haven't heard, McCain announced today that he will suspend his presidential campaign (after another 24 hours of speeches and appearances) to focus his energy on solving the Panic of 2008. Sadly, this would mean postponing Friday's much-anticipated debate with Barack Obama, but hey, sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

(Truth be told - I was off in Wisconsin and Illinois, on a very fun sports junket with three colleagues, watching the Chicago Cubs clinch a division championship, the Green Bay Packers get whupped by the Dallas Cowboys, and Magic Slim and the Teardrops blow the roof off a blues club in the Windy City. I also spent some time interviewing voters in the swing state of Wisconsin - fascinating, revealing conversations that will air later this week and next, and about which I will blog in a day or two).

So what's the truth behind McCain's latest bold maneuver? Is he really as selfless as he claims, willing to lose an election to save an economy? Or is this a cynical ploy, designed to back Obama into a corner and reclaim the mantle of the maverick?

One thing is certain: we have yet more proof that John McCain is never afraid to throw long. At the low point of his campaign, when Obama was riding a glorious post-convention surge, McCain went to the far end of the Republican bench and plucked Sarah Palin from the wilds of Alaska, stunning the pundits and producing a surge of his own, vaulting him right back into the lead. Now, with the polls showing Obama pulling away again, with the economic distress depressing McCain's support and pushing the Democrat back up by six to ten points, McCain goes deep again. This time, he boldly proposes putting politics on hold, postponing Friday's debate, and challenging Obama to put country first, as McCain always promises to do. Is it risky? You bet. Is it a mistake? It may well be. Does McCain really want to send voters the message that he can't handle his Senate duties and run for president at the same time? Is anyone in Washington really clamoring for McCain and Obama, neither of whom has been a leader on economic issues in the Senate, to come rushing back to the Capitol and solve this crisis? Is the Senate going to be so busy on a Friday night re-working the bailout proposal, that the two presidential candidates can't spend a few hours in Mississippi debating foreign policy and national security?

As of this writing, the Friday debate goes on, as scheduled. Obama responded with the obvious line of reasoning: we need to debate now more than ever. It may be appropriate to tone down the partisan bickering in time of crisis, but the American people only have six weeks to make a critical decision, and it's even more important than it was a few days ago that the rival candidates put their policies on the table for all to see. He resisted the impulse to take a nasty jab at McCain's apparent inability to multi-task, though he did say, gently, that "America needs a president who can do more than one thing at once."

The darkest view of McCain's gambit could be that he's not ready for Friday's debate. It's the presidential campaign version of "the dog ate my homework." In this case, the economy ate my debate prep. The paper is due in two days and McCain just realized he hasn't memorized the names of all the new world leaders yet. But maybe this is what's really behind it: It's a clever ploy to buy more time for Sarah Palin. Yes, it all comes back to the Drilla from Wasilla. The McCain campaign is going to suggest moving the first presidential showdown to next Thursday, replacing the one and only vice presidential debate, which would be postponed to some unspecified date, later in October. That would give Palin a few more precious weeks to do her own homework. The Obama camp is not likely to bite though, so expect the debates to go on as planned.

Which means the Republicans will again be able to denounce Obama as a selfish Messiah who values his own ascent more than the economic well-being of the hard-working American middle class. But that's not likely to stick. Moving your presidential campaign to Washington, in the midst of an economic crisis, isn't ending politics as usual; it's as naked a political move as you'll ever see. Remember the last time a presidential candidate used a national crisis as an excuse to seek refuge from a rough campaign? His name was Jimmy Carter, and his "Rose Garden strategy" during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 backfired miserably. Suspend the campaign? Just long enough to delay the debates? McCain may need another kind of suspension - of the voters' disbelief - for this one to work.

Listen to McCain's announcement, Obama's response, and Katie Couric's exclusive sit-down with Sarah Palin tonight, along with the very latest polls (Fox News puts Obama ahead too, not just ABC), all on www.sovernnation.com