Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Head Scratcher

Bizarre, bizarre day on the campaign trail. I wanted to wait a few hours for things to settle down so I could survey the damage; I can do that since I'm not in this to be your one-stop shop for all the breaking political news. I recommend Talking Points Memo or Salon for that.

First, the Times reported that the Bush administration had caved on its bailout package and was willing to limit executive compensation for those companies that participated in the plan. For awhile that looked like the dominant story. Later stories indicated that a preferred version of the package floating around the House included several amendments demanded by the Democratic majority.

Then, John McCain took the extraordinary step of suspending his campaign and calling for a postponement of Friday's presidential debate. The reason? McCain feels like the country would be better served if he winged his way back to Washington to work on the bailout package, a bailout package that seemed to be slowly, but steadily, working its way through the legislative process.

Then the Obama campaign alleged that it was Obama who reached out early in the day to try and forge some kind of joint statement for the two campaigns. Obama said in a news conference that he wanted the debate to go ahead as planned. It was, I thought, a good response, echoing something I was ineloquently saying on another board:

“This is exactly the time when people need to hear from the candidates,” Mr. Obama said.

He added: “Part of the president’s job is to deal with more than one thing at once. In my mind it’s more important than ever.”

The McCain camp then said their candidate would unilaterally skip the debate if a bill was not passed by Friday at 9 PM. Harry Reid said McCain and Obama weren't needed in the capital.

About an hour ago, Obama and McCain both accepted invitations from the president to attend a White House briefing tomorrow.

Deep breath now.

McCain's massive gamble is the story here. What he's trying to do is cast himself as the patriotic statesman, abandoning a selfish campaign to return to his job and save America from a second Great Depression. Barack Obama, in contrast, will continue to plow ahead with his individual desires, forgetting his country and putting himself first. It's a familiar play; the McCain campaign has staged several of those during the election season, and they're getting pretty good at the blocking of it. It's usually part of a double feature with "Bitching About the Media."

But this is a different issue. The American people don't really care about what's said in a presidential debate, barring some kind of extraordinary gaffe or witty rejoinder. But they're deeply attached to the idea of the debates, the theater of them. As Obama points out, this is a moment when people really do want and need to hear from the country's two most important politicians. (Sit down, Mr. President.)

McCain might be able to cajole Obama and the Commission on Presidential Debates into delaying Friday's debate, possibly pushing it back to the date currently occupied by the Vice Presidential affair. I hope Obama stands firm on this, and I suspect he will.

Here's McCain's quandary: he cannot, cannot, cannot unilaterally withdraw from that debate. He cannot allow Obama to stand alone on a stage and answer questions from Jim Lehrer. So he better hope the Congress has a bailout passed. I suspect he has reason to believe that'll be the case.

My guess? We'll have our debate. Obama won't officially suspend his campaign, but he'll fly up to Washington, do the Senator thing, get his photo taken huddled with white-haired economists and do his debate prep in the evening. McCain will do much the same.

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