With the momentum of the campaign swinging decisively against him, John McCain has rolled the dice once again, hoping to alter the dynamics of a race where events over the last 10 days were playing directly into his opponent’s strengths while blunting his own post convention surge.
The suspension of his campaign is a gimmick, of course – a stylized Kabuki play where Obama was to meekly acquiesce, following the older man’s lead by going to Washington and help bring Congress together on a bailout package. But Obama didn’t want to come out and play. He is calling McCain’s bluff and will show up at the debate in Mississippi on Friday night even if McCain eschews participation. He also declined McCain’s gracious invitation to play second fiddle in Congressional negotiations on the package.
Is this smart? More than smart, it was necessary. McCain is the one gambling here, not Obama. There is very little risk for Obama continuing the campaign and going through with the debate. In fact, if McCain’s gambit is seen as playing politics with the crisis – a perception Obama surrogates are already trying to push – it may be very difficult for McCain to recover from that kind of damage before the election.
Nothing screams “President!” quite like “crisis leadership” and the McCain camp may have believed they had Obama trapped. If he had acceded to McCain’s wishes and gone back to Washington, the Republican would have had a triumph. I don’t think the McCain campaign ever saw that happening, though. More likely, they believed the contrast drawn between the two candidates – one selflessly suspending his campaign while the other cynically taking advantage of the crisis as well as his opponent’s “putting the country first” – would work in their favor.
In this, I believe they have miscalculated. This really is too gimmicky to work that well. McCain may not lose as much as he probably should (he may get some credit for the gambit) but all he has succeeded in doing is dominating one or two news cycles.
On the other hand, I don’t see this as a desperation move by McCain – a “hail Mary” as some commenters are dubbing it. It’s way too early for that kind of panic. And I also disagree that some of these polls that appeared yesterday had much to do at all with this move. They wouldn’t suspend their campaign based on the kind of polling done by WaPo or any other media outlet. They spend millions on their own polling thank you – polling that is much more accurate with regards to what people are feeling about the candidates and the race.
What they saw in their internal polling was no doubt some bad trends toward Obama. The Democrat is almost certainly not 9 points ahead nationally – not with both Gallup and Rasmussen showing it much closer. Nor do the state polls reflect that big of an Obama lead. My friend Rich Baehr at The American Thinker – a very savvy and incisive poll reader – gives Obama a 4 point lead based on his reading of the state polls with momentum clearly swinging his way the last 72 hours. This almost certainly reflects the voter’s skepticism that any bailout will be achieved hence McCain’s belief that he might tap into that worry by demonstrating crisis leadership and declaring his willingness to work toward a bi-partisan solution. The media isn’t buying it nor, if overnight flash polls can be believed, is the public.
So where does that leave McCain? I believe that the GOP will close ranks today and agree to join the Democrats in voting for the bailout package. McCain will suddenly discover the crisis is over and show up in Mississippi for the debate on Friday night. Yet to be seen is what effect, if any, the Gambit will have on people’s perceptions of the campaign and of McCain in particular. One flash poll taken minutes after McCain’s announcement is meaningless in this regard. It will take 48 hours or so for perceptions to harden as the news is filtered through the regular channels of cable news, the internet, and the MSM. I would expect that any polls taken just prior to the debate will reveal if McCain’s gamble had any effect on the race at all.
If it does nothing more than slow Obama’s momentum, it could be seen as a partial success. But frankly, I think both candidates are at the mercy of events with McCain at a decisive disadvantage. By 2-1 the public – rightly or wrongly – places the blame for the Wall Street meltdown on Republicans. And Obama is not going to let people forget that.