While most of us were plodding through another routine day of McCain missteps and deceptive ads, the McCain people themselves woke to the news that their senior campaign advisor, Rick Davis, would stand accused in the nation's leading newspaper of receiving a $15,000 a month stipend from Freddie Mac. And this wasn't some quiet whisper of innuendo, either--this was a carefully researched story which flew right into the teeth of McCain's recent economic counter-offensive, built around the insinuation of an Obama tie to that very same institution. If they didn't do something, right away, Mr. Davis would find himself standing in front of one of those ominous brick facades someplace, with flashbulbs going off in his face as he desperately tried to explain this story away.
Their first stab at changing the game was to dig deep into their usual playbook of feigned outrage and overt denial. "The New York Times is an Obama Advocacy Organization," said campaign Director Steve Schmidt, in a media conference call considered blistering even by the already bellicose standards of the campaign. "They have obscured their true intentions — to undermine the candidacy of John McCain and boost the candidacy of Barack Obama — under the cloak of objective journalism.”
It didn't work. By noon the major media outlets of the country had adopted the conference call as their exigency for reporting the original story--something on which they had heretofore demurred, pending named sources. Instead of chastening the press into its more familiar, more besotted posture with pretend anger and disappointment, the conference call had the effect of bringing the propriety of the Davis retainer into the full-frontal consciousness of every persuadable voter in the country. Clearly it was time for plan-B.
And so it was, at roughly 2:30 this afternoon (September 24), that Mr. McCain announced he was "suspending his campaign" to return to Washington and concentrate on the pressing matter of negotiating an acceptable Wall Street bailout bill. You heard that right: he said he would suspend his campaign for President, with less than six weeks until the election, to resume his day-job as a Senator for the duration of the bailout talks. If nothing else, the fallout from the revelations about Mr. Davis were gone in an instant--like so much snow falling on a warm road.
Since Mr. McCain refused to take any questions from the press (surprise, surprise), it is not actually clear what his announcement of a suspension actually means--whether, for instance, he intends to discontinue his television ads, or just his traveling campaign appearances. Neither is it clear whether the suspension applies equally to Governor Palin, who was scheduled to sit down for a very public blood-letting at the hands of Katie Couric, later today. By immunizing himself from the need to stand accountable for the announcement in real-time, Mr. McCain avoided the pressing matter of whether this "suspension" will be an actual, legal suspension, in the actual, legal sense of the term--which carries the advantage of excusing him from debt repayment but also prohibits him from any form of campaigning--or just a sudden refusal to talk to anyone. Surely a person could be forgiven for expecting him to try to have this matter both ways.
What is known, at this hour, is that McCain has also called on both Senator Obama and the Presidential Debate Commission to indefinitely postpone the first Presidential debate, originally scheduled for this Friday evening at nine o'clock eastern time. It is also known that the first effort at bipartisanship in this matter was actually floated by Senator Obama, who called McCain early this morning to suggest that the two of them publish a joint communique on the financial situation--a suggestion to which McCain reportedly agreed in principal during that very telephone conversation, only to officially respond several hours later with a call for postponing the upcoming debate.
Obviously it is impossible to ascribe verifiable motives to the McCain team in this matter, though I would argue that the campaign has already shown its hand with respect to how it intends to proceed in framing the conversation about their decision--namely, as a choice to "put the country first," instead of choosing selfish personal objectives like winning a measly Presidential Election campaign. When asked about the move at a luncheon sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, McCain Political Director Mike DuHaime was in full, on-message glory, casting Obama as a boogeyman of personal aggrandizement in the face of national crisis:
Quite frankly, I think you could ask Sen. Obama if he’s going to do what he thinks is right. I mean, he has never -- I believe -- never once made a decision that is an unpopular decision or went against the orthodoxy of his party, and was one that was one that was a tough decision to make. . . . Sen. McCain has done that throughout his entire career, his entire life -- not just in politics, but his life.Somebody pass The Key Grip a box of tissues, please.
At the very least, these kinds of comments certainly suggest a problem for McCain in his challenge of passing the "sniff test" for today's decision, since it would seem improbable that such remarks hadn't been prepared and maybe even focus-group tested well in advance. Granted, if the suspension is indeed a purely a cynical attempt to shake up the race once again (after the Sarah Palin game-change failed to stick), then there is at this hour no smoking-gun proof of same. But the timing of this announcement is most assuredly its most damning aspect--since neither Mr. McCain nor any of his principal advisors felt it necessary to issue such a call last week, when the meltdown was in full swing and the fate of the entire financial sector was hinging on the emergency infusions of liquidity from the Treasury to the Fed.
Having waited this long, and only now deciding that the matter merits such superlative action, McCain has left the door wide open to charges that he is undertaking a last, desperate measure to avert final and absolute collapse in the popularity of his candidacy. Already today, in addition to the Rick Davis bombshell, CNN/Time Magazine battleground polls showed Obama comfortably ahead in Pennsylvania and Colorado (without at least one of which it seems impossible for McCain to win), and none other than Fox news issued the results of its latest national tracking poll, showing Obama ahead by an improbably large and comfy six percentage points--well outside the margin of error.
For the moment very few voices outside the McCain campaign would seem prepared to take Mr. McCain's maneuver on good faith. SurveyUSA even crashed an astoundingly quick (and by that measure probably not very accurate) poll on the question, and found just ten percent support among its 1,000 respondents for the idea of indefinitely postponing the debate. Snubbed at the last moment by the candidate, Dave Letterman spent well over nine minutes of his program this evening, drubbing the decision and its architect with an abandon more befitting the emergency replacement, Keith Olbermann. The University of Mississippi itself, the host of Friday's festivities, responded with an official statement, saying,
The University of Mississippi is going forward with the preparation for the debate. We are ready to host the debate, and we expect the debate to occur as planned. At present, the University has received no notification of any change in the timing or venue of the debate. We have been notified by the Commission on Presidential Debates that we are proceeding as scheduled. We will keep you posted as information becomes available.Now maybe that's not quite the same as saying, "We hereby decree that John McCain is full of shit." Or--well, maybe it is.
In Washington, meanwhile, Joe Klein has proposed changing the topic of the first debate from matters of foreign policy to questions about the bailout and the economy as a whole--an idea which carries a Machiavellian adroitness all its own, in that it carries the appearance of empathy for McCain's concern, without actually letting him off the hook. Incidentally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has also said that he doesn't see how it would do any good to have the two major candidates for President hanging around, gumming up the final negotiations with un-constructive posturing. To which this author says, if Reid hasn't flushed McCain's cover, at the very least he certainly has a point. Indeed late this afternoon, as this column was going to press, it was announced that the broad outlines of a deal had already been reached--hardly the sort of intractable crisis that would support a decision to cancel a prearranged campaign event as important as the first Presidential debate.
In what may be the most delicious turn of all, under the general heading of testing the public capacity for gullibility, the McCain campaign responded to the news of a tentative deal by suggesting that if the final bill hadn't been passed by Friday, he would categorically refuse to attend the debate at its appointed hour, but--get this!--for the good of the nation McCain would be happy to reschedule that debate to take place in the slot originally reserved for the vice presidential debate, apparently permanently excusing Governor Palin from the need to stand answerable to the American Public in any venue, under any auspices, anytime, anywhere, ever.
How all of this will play is necessarily a matter of pure conjecture. The waters here are so uncharted that I defy anyone to take a clear assessment of the future of this election. We may be looking at the last gasp of basic integrity and reason in American electoral politics; we may be looking at nothing short of a credible excuse to finally make good on progressives' oft-repeated threats to leave the country. Certainly we've heard the last of the Rick Davis / Freddie Mac retainer for awhile--perhaps forever.
But in American electoral politics it seems safe to presume that there are two things a major candidate must never do: One is to let the general public see the cynicism of its maneuvers for what it really is, and the other is to let the other guy see you sweat. Looking calculated and disingenuous kills your chances with women, I would argue, while looking weak will kill your chances with men. If I'm right, McCain's decision will play dreadfully in the living rooms of this once and soon-to-be great country of ours, if it hasn't already.
If I'm right, John McCain himself just sealed the deal on a Barack Obama Presidency.
("The Key Grip")