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.
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.