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9/24/2008

On McCain's Campaign Suspension

In a stunning political development, John McCain has suspended his presidential campaign, called for Friday's presidential debate to be delayed, and proposed suspending all campaign ads so he can concentrate on finding a solution to the nation's economic crisis. He called on rival Barack Obama to suspend his campaign in kind, but Obama declined to do so and said that the debates should go on as scheduled.

There are several ways this story could play out politically. John McCain clearly wants to be seen as putting "country first" and rising above politics to confront a national problem head on. McCain believes that voters want a solution to their economic problems and would appreciate a presidential candidate who was taking concrete steps to address the issue decisively and not just a politician who only talks about it. Obama had to make a critical decision when confronted with McCain's proposal to suspend his campaign. Had Obama suspended his campaign in kind, it would have significantly damaged Obama by making him look like a follower, rather than a leader. But had Obama rejected McCain's offer, it could have made Obama look more like a politician who would do anything to win than an actual leader who cared more about the nation's well-being than the well-being of his campaign.

While this story has yet to fully play itself out, it seems that McCain may regret this decision for several reasons.

1. The President of the United States cannot put the world on hold while he addresses one particular crisis. It is admirable that McCain wants to rise above politics by putting "country first" and suspending his campaign for the good of the nation, but he risks undercutting his own perception of being a strong leader. The next President will have to contend with the sour economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, the deficit, North Korea, illegal immigration, healing the cultural divide, energy independence, and entitlement reform. He simply can't suspend any of these pressing issues while he tends to another crisis. Now Obama has the opportunity to show that he will not wilt under pressure and that even if he may not have all the answers, at least he will stand up and fight. Obama is looking more like a president while McCain is looking more like a senator.

2. This decision contributes to a budding caricature of McCain as being rash or unsteady when it comes to decision-making. Last week, McCain said, "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." Then he called for the chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission to resign. Then he struck a populist chord that was discordant with his long legislative history as a deregulator and laissez faire capitalist. And now he is suspending his campaign.

Voters may want solutions to their problems. But they also want a president who has a steady hand. Obama has been criticized for being a bit too cerebral to connect with voters. But now his cerebral demeanor may come to be seen as composure during a crisis. In the event that the debates proceed as scheduled, does John McCain really want Barack Obama to have the stage to himself before tens of millions of voters?

3. While McCain's intentions may be entirely noble, it could also easily be seen as opportunistic. Ironically, his attempt to appear post-partisan may actually be seen as major political gamble, as some politicians suggest. In addition to ending the string of bad news cycles he has had over the past 10 days or so, his campaign suspension pushes a lot of new unfavorable stories out of the headlines:

  • There have been several polls showing Obama gaining ground on McCain or extending his lead in several battleground states.
  • Joe Biden gave a strong speech about foreign policy today in Ohio that featured a scathing indictment of McCain's political views.
  • Dovetailing from Biden's speech, had McCain not suspended his campaign, Biden's speech could have led to increased calls for Sarah Palin to deliver a major speech or take questions from the media. Strong media blowback against Palin is slowly creeping into the news dialogue.
  • Stories reflecting doubts about Sarah Palin were also beginning to get airtime.
  • Some may speculate that McCain is trying to avoid or postpone debating Obama this Friday.
As a result, voters may think McCain is really trying to put his campaign first (not "country first") by changing the subject.

4. It sets McCain up to be further damaged by his own previous statements about the economy. McCain's political opponents and voters in general could argue that if "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," as he said they were, then he shouldn't need to suspend his campaign. This feeds into the narrative of McCain being out of touch or even making a calculated political decision. McCain may need to simply acknowledge that his remarks about the economy were a mistake, but no politician wants to admit he was wrong. Keep in mind that he has repeatedly called on Obama to acknowledge that he was wrong about not supporting the troop surge in Iraq. That was a legitimate issue for McCain, but Obama hasn't been penalized for it the way McCain is now because Iraq is not the main issue of this election.

5. McCain has lost a considerable bit of goodwill this month because of the divisive tone of his convention and the campaign advertisements he has run. Thus, his pleas for bipartisanship may fall on deaf ears. A lot of his ads were sharply criticized for making sleazy allegations (such as claiming that Obama wanted to teach kindergartners about sex before teaching them how to read) or being far from the truth. Now McCain is returning to "country first" after sliming Obama in his ads. Obama has run some negative ads too, of course, but his hits have mostly been above the belt. Voters may not trust McCain after the way he has run his campaign this month, so his credibility is threatened.

6. Now that McCain is no longer an active candidate, even if only temporarily, he will be unable to attack Barack Obama or explain to voters why he should be the next president. He's losing precious time to distinguish himself and may have damaged his trust with the electorate. Ross Perot was running a strong race in 1992, for example, before he withdrew. He later got back in the race, but he lost a lot of credibility in the eyes of many voters who were volunteering for him and likely lost a lot of their votes because of it. McCain himself is the one who told voters to "fight" at his convention. Now he's going back to Washington and leaving his campaign on the sidelines. How will McCain's campaign suspension affect Republicans' enthusiasm not just for the McCain-Palin ticket, but also Republicans down the ballot?

Again, McCain is hoping that voters reward him for taking action while displaying political selflessness. But he risks ceding the political stage to Obama, looking like a political opportunist, coming across as weak, depressing Republican enthusiasm, and not being able to tap into the reservoir of goodwill he once had with voters because of the scorched earth campaign has run as of late. Thus, he may have been better served by insisting that this week's debate over foreign policy be changed to a debate about the economy. But he can't "reactivate" his campaign after he just suspended it. So now it looks like McCain has boxed himself into a corner.

8 comment(s):

Political Realm said...

I think the way McCain went about it truly reveals his motives. Rather than work behind the scenes with Obama to reach some kind of deal--whether it be to push back the debate, return to DC, whatever--he opted to ambush him by going public immediately after returning a call on Obama's offer to release a joint statement.

While the sound bite that "now isn't the time for joint statements, it's the time for action" is nice, that joint statement really would have been enough. They could have outlined the fixes they would like to see for the proposal and could have rounded up party support behind the scenes.

Neither of these guys is an economic wiz and they haven't even made it back for a vote in months. I worry that their late arrival would only further politicize things and rush an incomplete plan.

Khaki Elephant said...

Win or lose, McCain is not afraid to make bold moves. From selecting Palin to cutting the Republican convention short and now suspending his campaign.

Brett said...

I think he made a mistake with this kind of opportunism by mentioning "Oh yeah, let's have this debate end, Obama and McCain face off instead of Palin and Biden, with the Biden-Palin debate pushed off to an unknown date". It made it look incredibly opportunistic, and reinforced the meme that Palin is hiding something from the press.

You know what Obama ought to do? He ought to say "Yes, I'll suspend my role in this debate, come to Washington to help - on the condition that Palin and Biden debate in our places on friday". There would be no way for the McCain campaign to credibly deny that without looking incredibly craven and evasive.

Anonymous said...

I really just don't know anymore.

On one hand, you have 3 senators needing to vote on something very critical. They are elected senators. None of the 3 has voted on something in months. Now this crucial vote has become VERY political. This turn of events can show that McCain is opportunistic, and if Obama does not cooperate almost fully, it can show he is very partisan.

On the other hand, if McCain can broker this deal before the congressional recess...

Can't life just be pothole free...

Silence Dogood said...

"and proposed suspending all campaign ads so he can concentrate on finding a solution to the nation's economic crisis."

This particular part of the 'campaign suspension' is the thing that made it appear to me as more likely opportunistic and strategical than having anything to do with fixing the country at this time.

Let's face it, how in the hell does having the adds continue to run and allow his political machine to keep rolling onward affect his ability to personally focus on the financial debacle.

Also, the "suspend" the campaign idea seems so gimmicky since he could have just said he was 'cancelling all campaign activities' or appointment HE had.

The fact that he is attending the Clinton Global initiative in the meantime also makes this gimmick ring a little more hallow.

Brett pointed out what could have been a really adept move on Obama's part. All I can say is that this curious move on McCain's part appears most likely, with the information before us now, to be an attempt to keep Palin from actually having to face the American's she is supposed be helping him lead in four months. It is becoming more and more apparent she has a lot of trouble going off script.

Brett said...

That gets me, too, Silence. There's no need to "suspend the campaign" for him and Barack to go back to Washington; presumably both men have at least short-term strategies planned out with their campaign advisors, and could simply set their campaigns on "autopilot" while they're in Washington.

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

it is one word a stunt
and told u wamu would be next, waiting on wachovia now

DB said...

After watching the debate, I am convinced it was a stunt. McCain is getting sloppy.

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