Stunt Man

John McCain’s latest crazy, brilliant, desperate campaign tactic.

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

John McCain has launched his second Hail Mary pass in a month. On Wednesday he called for a suspension of the presidential campaign—no events, no ads, and no debate Friday—so that he and Barack Obama can head to Washington to forge a bipartisan solution. Even more than his selection of Sarah Palin as running mate, this gambit feels like a wild improvisation someone in the McCain team mapped out on his chest: OK, you run to the fire hydrant, cut left, and then when he gets to the Buick, John, you heave it.

It’s not clear what, exactly, McCain is going to do in Washington. He doesn’t sit on any of the relevant committees, and everyone is already deep in negotiations. Still, he’s coming anyway. It doesn’t make much logical sense. The only way to understand it is politically: In a presidential campaign, the surest sign that a candidate is playing politics on an issue is when he claims not to be playing politics on an issue. The only way for McCain to convince everyone that his intentions are 100 percent pure is for him to drop out of the race completely. A campaign doesn’t end—and its distracting affects don’t disappear—just because one candidate says so.

It’s hard to believe that McCain’s actions would pass his own laugh test. In fact, he’s often snickered at his fellow senators who come in at the eleventh hour to lend a hand after McCain has done the hard work. But the McCain campaign is past caring about how journalists (or colleagues) view his moves. He hopes the rest of the country will see this as a leadership moment.

McCain needed to do something. He is slipping in the polls both nationally and in the battleground states. He’s playing on Obama’s turf in his effort to sell himself both as a change agent and as a steward of the economy. When voters are asked which candidate represents change, Obama beats McCain by more than 30 percentage points. When they’re asked which candidate they trust to handle the economy, he beats McCain almost as handily. Plus, congressional Democrats were making mischief, arguing that unless McCain joined in supporting the package it would fail.

What was a candidate to do in that instance? Issue a press release? Come up with a better 10-point plan? (An 11-point plan?) Chanting “Drill, baby, drill” won’t help. McCain’s argument is that he represents something other than politics as usual, and this gambit certainly isn’t usual. (Though I was reminded of Bob Dole’s effort to shake up his 1996 campaign by stepping down from the Senate. There just aren’t that many things a presidential candidate can do that suggest boldness.)

McCain’s maneuver might look phony—but then, he and Obama have been engaging in phony activities since this financial crisis hit. Both candidates have been huddling with economic brains, as if they were already a government in waiting. They’ve both tried to act in ways that help voters see them as competent crisis managers. Perhaps McCain will help us define that line between the charades that voters allow and those they think are ridiculous, but he got an assist from the president. Bush called for a bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders and for McCain and Obama to talk about the crisis. Obama had to accept, a tacit buy-in into the McCain strategy. McCain and Obama also issued a joint statement calling for bipartisan cooperation. (Obama’s appended the plan he wanted McCain to agree to in the joint statement; McCain issued just the three-paragraph statement.)

So even if McCain has to spend the next several days defending his motivations, he may be able to do so at least partially on his terms. Voters might see it as a transparent political act, or they might just hear “McCain takes bold action in response to crisis.” Obama talks about getting people in a room to forge consensus, but he can’t match McCain’s record—which McCain will happily talk about when people challenge his authenticity. Of course, the big downside for McCain is that he’s now in the thick of a debate on a topic (economics) that he’s not so comfortable with and that voters don’t intrinsically trust him on.

In response to McCain, Obama pointed out that he had actually started the bipartisan ball rolling, reaching out to McCain privately earlier in the day to issue a joint statement. McCain then one-upped him and went public. (Historians of the relationship between the two men will note that their first fracas in 2006 came in a nearly identical situation, though the roles were reversed: McCain thought he was working out a private deal with Obama over lobbying reform until Obama appeared to outflank him in his public posture. McCain and his staff went ballistic.)

Obama declined to suspend his campaign and said he was planning to participate in the Friday debate. What the country needs, he said, quite reasonably, was a vigorous presidential debate on just this set of issues. Obama aides also argued that McCain was not only being transparently political, but reckless. Imagine what that recklessness would be like if McCain were in the Oval Office, they say. On Wednesday Joe Biden had already given a speech framing McCain as risky and dangerous as commander-in-chief in the hopes of planting that story line before the first debate.

Whether McCain’s crazy gambit is seen as desperate or brilliant, it doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s probably not the last. The beneficial effects of the Palin Hail Mary lasted only a few weeks, and another adrenaline injection was needed. If this one doesn’t work, that’s OK—in due time they can try another razzle-dazzle play. And if it does work, that’s great—in due time they can still try another razzle-dazzle play. It all makes the prospect of a McCain White House very exciting. So exciting, he might want to schedule periodic suspensions of his presidency to get anything done.