McCain Gambles on a Suspension, Loses

It’s funny how a few minutes can change so much in politics. Initially, John McCain’s surprise announcement on Wednesday afternoon that he’s “suspending” his campaign and wants Friday’s debate postponed so that he can focus on the Wall Street bailout looked like a bold and perhaps brilliant move. But by the end of the day, once the Obama campaign sorted out what was, in retrospect, the only sensible response, it looked like the McCain campaign had reached way too far.

McCain’s intent was to steal the spotlight for a few days and to turn the Congressional bailout debate into a showcase of his own leadership style. By abruptly swearing off politics and pulling his ads off the air, the thinking went, he’d provide a tangible demonstration of the “country first” slogan that he’s adopted for his campaign.

Plus, he’d be the center of attention in Washington, where he’d be able to claim credit for spurring Congress into action and passing a compromise rescue program or to lead the fight against whatever plan emerges. Either way, the show would belong to McCain – while Barack Obama would have no choice but to play along and suspend his campaign too (or run the risk of looking like he was choosing politics over his country), without receiving any of the credit or attention that McCain stood to reap.

The ploy – which called to mind his cancelation of the first day of the Republican convention (another “country first” moment, supposedly) – worked, for a bit. Every cable news channel interrupted its programming to explore McCain’s “bombshell” and to play – over and over – a clip of McCain explaining how important it was to the country to put the campaign aside for a few days. What was Obama going to do in response – defend Politics As Usual?

But what the Obama campaign recognized was that McCain had left himself vulnerable to charges that he was panicking, overreacting and politicizing the Congressional negotiations. So instead of feeling pressured to prove his own “country first” credentials by playing McCain’s game, Obama held his ground, making clear that he’d been in regular communication with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Congressional leaders about their negotiations and that he stood ready to travel to Washington at any time if they felt his presence their might help. In the meantime, though, he said he had no intention of stopping his campaign – or of skipping Friday night’s debate in Mississippi.

“It’s going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once,” he explained in a late afternoon news conference.

As the story unfolded in the late afternoon and early evening hours, Obama’s posture looked stronger and stronger. For one thing, Friday’s debate organizers – at the University of Mississippi and on the presidential debate commission – made it clear that they still planned to proceed. And Democrats in Washington immediately and loudly closed ranks behind Obama, pointing out that McCain has been absent all week as negotiations have progressed. And the media, who the McCain campaign was clearly counting on to take their patriotism-before-partisanship gesture at face value, quickly turned a more skeptical eye on the move: Why couldn’t McCain weigh in on the bailout debate without causing the entire political universe to screech to a halt?

It quickly became clear that the story was more complicated than a “McCain suspends campaign to focus on financial crisis” headline. By standing his ground, Obama turned it into a much more favorable “McCain calls for debate postponement; Obama says the show must go on.”

With the media treating McCain’s move as a stunt, the momentum in this story seems to be on Obama’s side. Already, a SurveyUSA instant poll has found that voters, by a 50-36 percent margin, think the debate should go ahead as planned – and that by a 31-14 percent margin, they don’t think suspending all campaigning is the proper response to financial crisis. There is, it seems, considerable sympathy among voters for Obama’s view that candidates should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

This creates an unexpected complication for McCain. Whereas his campaign thought that Obama would feel compelled to go along with postponing the debate, the pressure will now be on McCain to reverse his position and to participate anyway. As Obama said in his press conference, there’s no reason both candidates can’t spend the day on Friday in Washington, then hop on their jets and make it to Oxford in time for the debate. But will McCain look weak – and will he seem to be admitting how overtly political his gesture on Wednesday was – if he now does agrees to debate? Or alternately, if he stands his ground and refuses, does he risk seeming like he’s afraid to debate? (Whether this is actually true, McCain now figures to face this allegation from countless Obama surrogates.)

By the end of the day, McCain’s move looked very much like the hastily conceived gamble it was. And Barack Obama, more than he has in a long while, looked like a leader.

McCain Gambles on a Suspension, Loses