First, here’s why John McCain suspended his campaign today:
ABC NEWS/WASH PO
National: Obama 52, McCain 43
National: Obama 45, McCain 39
Iowa: Obama 51, McCain 41
New Hampshire: Obama 51, McCain 45
Michigan: Obama 52, McCain 43
Ohio: Obama 47, McCain 45
Pennsylvania: Obama 49, McCain 44
FIVE THIRTY EIGHT
McCain’s campaign is sliding off the rails right now, with the economy completely dominating every news cycle in the past 10 days, the media revolting against the (sexist!) Sarah Palin media bubble, and the New York Times dropping a bunker buster yesterday on the McCain campaign’s ties to Freddie Mac. Today, John McCain– realizing that the best thing that could happen to him right now is for the entire planet to somehow come to a screeching halt– asked Barack Obama to stop the race; he wants to get off. More specifically, McCain has suspended his campaign, he’s headed to Washington D.C. to
slow down and further politicize attend the bailout hearings, he’s asked Obama to join him, and he’s calling for Friday night’s foreign policy debate to be postponed.
It’s not hard to see McCain’s logic in all this. The move to suspend his campaign will look like “country first” to the casual observer, and it pressures Obama to suspend a campaign that is by all accounts picking up incredible and perhaps unstoppable steam right now. It’s the equivalent of calling a timeout– common in sports, but to my knowledge unprecedented in presidential politics– to stop your opponent’s momentum.
The choice for Obama isn’t easy, as Ben Smith lays out:
This isn’t an obvious one. Does he go along with McCain, for fear of being trapped inside McCain’s argument that the Republican puts country first while the Democrat puts himself first?
Or does he denounce this as a political stunt, and ignore it?
Either way, the ball’s in his court, and it’s a not an easy or obvious choice.
There is clear political risk for Obama in denying McCain’s request and staying on the trail. It would allow McCain to paint Obama as a politician, who is more concerned with his campaign than with the economic crisis. If a deal is reached and the markets are stabilized with McCain in Washington to take the credit, it would potentially close the gap in people’s minds on the issue of which candidate would best handle the economy.
But there is also some political risk for Obama in granting McCain’s request and returning to Washington. It would temporarily stop the momentum of Obama’s campaign, including a number of attacks on McCain’s complicity in the crisis and long history of supporting deregulation that were beginning to make a dent, and it would do this a mere five weeks away from the election. The two presidential candidates in Washington would also politicize the bailout hearings and perhaps kill whatever progress that’s been made this week (I’m watching the hearings on CSPAN right now and all the Senate has talked about for the last hour is whether it’s a good idea for McCain to be there).
The question of whether Obama should join McCain in D.C. is tricky, the question of whether he should agree to postpone the debate is not. The answer is– barring a market crash or a terrorist attack– absolutely not. And the reason is simply because there’s no reason to; the 90 minutes McCain and Obama will spend debating foreign policy on Friday night won’t slow Congress in any way. And for Obama, the structural advantages of the debate’s timing cannot be overstated. The fact that the debate is occuring on a Friday night, typically the lowest night of the week for TV viewership, and the fact that whatever happens will likely be lost in whatever solution Congress does or does not reach by the weekend, means that what will likely be John McCain’s strongest debate of the three will probably get the least audience and coverage. There’s no reason to let McCain off this hook.
As for the question of whether Obama should join McCain in D.C., I believe he should. The only real way for John McCain to win this election is for some huge, gamechanging maneuver to pay off big, and McCain knows this. It’s why he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate with little to no research beforehand, and it’s why he suspended his campaign today. He’s swinging for the fences.
By joining McCain in D.C., Obama takes away the chance– however small it is– that this economic crisis could somehow work out politically in McCain’s favor. He takes away the possibility of newspapers across the country running an image Monday morning of John McCain standing next to the President, Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and leaders of Congress, as popular bipartisan legislation is passed that rescues the economy. He takes away the possibility of McCain spending the next five weeks saying, “I put my country first. I suspended my campaign to go to Washington and reach across the aisle to save our economy. And while I was in Washington solving problems, Barack Obama stayed on the campaign trail attacking me and raising money, but doing nothing for the American people.”
The economy is the one major policy advantage Barack Obama has over John McCain in the polls. It’s an advantage that will likely carry Obama to the White House, and it’s an advantage that must be protected at all costs. If Obama allows McCain to pull even on the issue of the economy– or even within single digits– he’ll lose the election. Now is the time for Obama to play defense, hold the ball, protect the lead. Now is the time for Obama to head to D.C., stand next to McCain, and make sure his face is on the front page Monday morning.
McCain is also calling for Obama to join him in suspending all campaign advertising! So not only does McCain want to call a timeout, he wants all the players off the field and the fans to go home. Obviously, that’ll be a no from the Obama camp.
And it looks like Obama is saying no to postponing the debate and no to going to Washington. It’s gutsy, but Obama is clearly going to run the campaign he wants to run. He has a plan and it looks like no amount of pressure from McCain is going to knock him off course. The upside of a Democratic Congress means that they’ll do whatever necessary to limit McCain’s political gains out of this. Harry Reid is already pushing back.
I still think Obama needs to take some political steps to look like he’s rolling up his sleeves along with McCain, no matter how useless (or counterproductive) the steps are in reality. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.