Thursday, September 25, 2008

(Since it Isn't Governing) Is it Politics? Or Health?

Several facets of the McCain-suspension story have come into clearer subjective focus in the overnight hours, though it must be said at the outset that there have been few additional facts. While many of us have been preoccupied with the potential for McCain to duck his debate commitment, spare Sarah Palin from any further public access, and yet somehow actually score political points in doing it all, an alert reader of these columns has suggested that the reason for this decision could easily be far more serious than even that Machiavellian little passion-play might suggest. John McCain might at this hour be gravely ill.

In his announcement of this development he looked nothing short of terrible--worse even than his interview a few days earlier with Sixty Minutes. Indeed he hasn't looked himself for weeks, as far as this author is concerned--which is really saying something when you're talking about a seventy-two year old who spent the four defining years of his adulthood chained to a wall.

Last night, as part of Dave Letterman's unscheduled, ten-minute roast of McCain for ditching his scheduled appearance on The Late Show, the program cut away to a behind-the-scenes glimpse of McCain being prepped for an interview with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News (the cut away intended to show that McCain had misrepresented the urgency of his need to cancel the appearance on the other, taped program). As seasoned a pro as Mr. Letterman is at skewering people of all stripes, he actually missed this one--presumably because he was too personally wounded to stop talking long enough to notice: But in the background, over Letterman's own commentary about McCain's double-booking, as the candidate is shown being prepped by a makeup artist, one can actually hear Mr. McCain, repeating line fragments in a robotic, almost desperate monotone--sounding less like someone who's made countless appearances on national television and more like someone trying to convince that he can get through the whole thing without passing out.

And then there is this: It's only been a few hours, but since McCain's announcement he has yet to be seen again in public.

Meanwhile, the originally suggested reasons for this move continue to hold their own orbit, with the idea of canceling the vice presidential debate emerging as the preferred message of McCain surrogates, despite the fact that essentially no one outside the GOP campaign sees any reason not to continue with the original program. The prospect of Sarah Palin appearing in a vice presidential debate opposite Joe Biden just sunk in the esteem of McCain insiders by a few further points, after Palin's dreadful, borderline horrific performance with Katie Couric last night on the very same CBS Evening News into which McCain had broken for that creepy makeup rehearsal.

The talking-points memo from within the Republican campaign, discussing how to spin the story into a vote-getter for McCain, has also leaked--making the matter look even more calculated and disengenuous than it had before, which personally I didn't think was even possible. The Rick Davis / Freddie Mac retainer issue is gone from the national consciousness, the McCain team has saved precious advertising money by not running spots during the suspension (recently clarified, thanks to an alert reader), and nobody anywhere is talking about anything else this morning, other than this decision. To that extent, McCain has won the news cycle by limiting the damage that could have resulted if the original breaking story of yesterday had been allowed to reach critical mass.

But here's the thing: even low-information, persuadable voters in the middle have a relatively low threshold for manipulation at the hands of these "shake-up-the-race" moments. When you pick for your running mate a woman who needed six and a half years and five transfers to complete a bachelor's degree in journalism, they go along with it (until, that is, they find out that she is an avowed liar, but that's another column). But when you do that, and then you cancel the first day of your own convention to hold a hurricane telethon, and then you breathlessly announce this move, too, shortly after the others, people gradually stop feeling "shaken up" and start feeling insulted.

Senator Dole tried the same tricks in 1996--a comparison Mr. McCain could surely live without, given its implications--and they flatly didn't work. From promising a shakeup in his vp choice (anyone remember who it was?), to resigning from the Senate to campaign full-time, to promising a complete reversal of tactics in the second debate that never materialized, by the time he really knew which shakeup might have worked, the other guy was giving the victory speech from a stage in Little Rock.

Then there is the question of voter information and knowledge. It's not usually such a desperately risky move to insult the intelligence of the people still undecided in late September, but when they're already predisposed to question your actions it gives the press an unusual opportunity to impart to them a civics lesson. And here the news for Mr. McCain only gets worse, since his presence at a closed-door meeting of the Senate Banking Committee is not only not essential, it's not even appropriate.

Chris Dodd would summarily throw Mr. McCain out of the meeting room, if McCain even did intend to interject himself into the markup, which he manifestly does not. Were Dodd to feel as though he needed GOP input on the matter, he'd turn six inches to his right and ask the ranking Republican on the banking committee, Senator Richard Shelby. Mr. McCain has one role in this process, and it comes at the very end, and it's to be one among 100 votes, yea or nay. Something he could do by chartered flight from the debate theater, if Mr. Obama wasn't able to persuade his colleagues to suspend the vote until after the debate--which of course he could.

As noted in these pages yesterday, the public is polling at a ten-percent approval rating for McCain's attempt to sidestep Friday's debate. But that's a first-look number, and these things are notoriously changeable. The story will cement itself as a shamelessly political play--or not--in this morning's and this evening's news cycle. Which means only one thing for loyal readers of Cinema Democratica: contact the major media outlets of this country (not using op/ed, but by actually reaching the newsroom), and politely but firmly point out that McCain can offer no justification for his actions. Insist that any stories run today on the subject include discussions of the workings of the Senate, and by extension of Mr. McCain's limited role in forging a consensus on the bill. Insist on seeing Mr. McCain in public. Insist, at base level, that this nonsense be pressed by the entity that we all used to know without being reminded, is called "the press" for a reason--that has nothing to do with movable type.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


A. Gordon said...


I think you briefly touched on it in yesterday's blog entry and we've seen in over the past few days on Political Wire:

McCain has no friends left in the press (save, perhaps Fox News) because of how his campaign has treated them. Let's recap:

1) no press conferences for him in what, 4+ weeks?
2) no press conferences for Palin period.
3) they blocked (but later capitulated...sort of) reporters from Palin's "OhShitINeedToGetSomeForeignPolicyExperience" meetings with various foreign heads of state (which clearly must have been serious discussions since the PM of Pakistan called her "gorgeous." Right, because the most important aspect of a candidate for VP is how he/she looks.)

I mean, every politician knows the MSM is biased in some form or fashion (except, of course, Fox News), but every politician also knows that the MSM is the ONLY way they can get their message out. So if you blow them off and piss them off - you've effectively just doomed your campaign.

It's kind of ironic actually: McCain got himself into a little trouble being honest in his open-door sessions earlier this year w/ the press. But since canning them and attempting to stay on message, he's gotten himself into even more trouble. This corner wonders if McCain hadn't changed this policy, would the race still look even remotely the same as now?

Dave O'Gorman said...

Indeed even the supposed bias of the mainstream press is subordinate to their comfort level about how much access they're getting and how they're being treated. In "Journeys With George," Alexandra Pelosi documented the 2000 Presidential election, coming to the chilling conclusion that Bush won it because he was more charming than Gore was, on the press plane.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog, Dave. Keep up the work. You've become a must-stop every morning before my work day starts...

Have you seen the second piece of the Palin interview where she discusses Russia?

It's not funny any more. It's scary.

Dave O'Gorman said...

The second segment of the Palin interview will be forming the core of my next column -- and yes, it's downright chilling to think that this woman could end up with the top job.

Thank you *SO* *MUCH* for the kind words -- I enjoy writing these but without feedback it's just a big echo chamber. (Let me know when I make a hash of it, too.)

Anonymous said...

More feedback: Did you just recently start blogging? I'm wondering how I didn't come across your insightful analysis sooner. You've been added to my short list of political blogs that get checked daily. Thanks for your efforts.

Dave O'Gorman said...

Yes, first-ever blog entry was the day after Obama picked Joe Biden.

And *THANK* *YOU*!!!

One thought about this surreal situation with the debate tomorrow night: could McCain be laying the groundwork to pull a "Jim Bunning," and offer to have his side of the debate via closed-circuit TV? (You know, so that a staffer can stand four feet off-camera and feed him all the answers?)