“Suspension” … and Disbelief

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, October 2, 2008)


After threatening to cancel on the organizers and the American people, John McCain actually showed up to debate Friday night in Mississippi. Once there, he spent a good portion of his time trying to argue that changing tactics is the same thing as creating a new strategy.

He did so while referring to the temporary troop-level increase in Iraq, but the same basic principle can also apply to his bizarre week on the campaign trail.

McCain’s claim to embark on a “suspension” of his campaign — one in which the only actual attempts at suspension involved canceling on talk shows and trying to wiggle out of the debate — is only the latest tactic in a cynical strategy that’s emerged since the formerly media-friendly McCain entered the final months of the race. Lately, the McCain/Palin ticket has done all it can to avoid answering questions or explaining the candidates’ positions, and to treat even the most legitimate of queries or concerns about them as unfair. Essentially, to limit exposure as much as possible before the first Tuesday in November.

The candidates’ actions over the past week underscore the rationale for such a crude tactic.

There was McCain trying to justify abandoning Friday’s forum by saying he was needed in Washington to solve the financial crisis, then failing to speak or play much of a role at all in the negotiations. Furthermore, the fact both he and Obama were able to meet with President Bush, meet with Congress and still take part in the debate made McCain’s early pronouncement look silly (as did Obama’s matter-of-factly pointing out that whoever becomes president will need to multitask). This was just days after McCain angrily said he’d fire the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission — a job the courts usually deem outside the president’s jurisdiction — and opportunistically changed his long-held views in support of deregulation.

Of course, there was the debate itself, and the post-debate polls showing that a clear majority of viewers felt Obama “won.” It wasn’t merely a matter of style points — a print transcript doesn’t do McCain any favors either – but they helped. McCain, who talked a lot about bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle, was nothing short of rude to his opponent and arrogant in his approach. While Obama routinely cited areas in which the candidates agreed — moments the McCain campaign turned into a campaign ad almost immediately — McCain’s body language and refusal to so much as look at Obama spoke volumes. In a column that opened with the words “I do not like you, John McCain,” film critic Roger Ebert pulled a Frank Rich and applied his critical eye to the Republican’s off-putting behavior. “Were you angry because after you said you wouldn’t attend the debate, he said a president should be able to concern himself with two things at the same time? He was right. The proof is, you were there. Were you angry with him because he called your bluff?”

Meanwhile, the McCain camp continues to treat Sarah Palin like a historic photograph that will fade completely if touched by sunshine. Reporters were banned from her first-ever meetings with foreign leaders (save for cameras to record her photo-ops), and she’s sat for interviews only slightly more often than J.D. Salinger since becoming the vice-presidential candidate. Partly because, in the rare moments when she has deigned to speak to her would-be constituents, she hasn’t done her ticket any favors.

Of course, she made headlines with her utter lack of knowledge in the much-hyped Charles Gibson interview (for which she had ample time to prepare, given it was her first one and agreed to days after she got the nomination). Last week, she topped herself by making McCain look bad during an interview with Katie Couric on CBS. After repeating talking points and sounding remarkably over-coached, she failed to provide any specifics of how McCain had pushed for more financial regulation and could reply only, “I’ll try to find you some and I’ll bring them to you.”

The Couric interview provided two unfortunate bookends for McCain. Palin’s struggle to name one example was reminiscent of CNN’s Campbell Brown receiving a similar, sputtering non-answer when asking a McCain staffer for just one example of Palin’s alleged foreign-policy credentials. Word of the interview’s contents also prompted McCain to “unsuspend” his supposedly suspended campaign to do a CBS interview of his own as damage control. In the process, he gave David Letterman — on whom he’d already canceled — an excuse for a pretty damning joke. “What are you going to do if you’re elected and things get tough? Suspend being president? We’ve got a guy like that now.”

No wonder the McCain campaign wanted to reschedule last week’s debate for this Thursday. Not coincidentally, it would have also forced the rescheduling of the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and the perpetually overmatched Palin.

There are other reasons for the cone of silence around the McCain ticket. Having already accepted public financing (which limits its expenditures between the convention and Election Day), the campaign has needed an RNC-created quasi-independent committee to help with advertising, while Obama continues to raise record amounts of money. It’s also worth noting that McCain has for years received overwhelmingly positive press coverage and isn’t used to answering for contradictions or assertions the way other politicians in both parties often must. “A whole series of ideas about McCain — that he’s a maverick, that he’s a reformer, that he’s an ideological moderate — have become so embedded in the coverage of McCain that journalists no longer even ask whether they’re true,” author Paul Waldman said in the spring. Those ideas have been based on image and personality rather than specifics, and talking about specifics hasn’t proven helpful for this year’s Republican presidential slate.

The most popular boxing analogy of this campaign season has compared Obama’s approach to McCain’s attacks to Muhammad Ali’s famed “rope-a-dope” approach. It’s just as apt to compare McCain to an out-of-shape fighter doing all he can to duck a top contender. His campaign is essentially trying to run out the clock until Election Day, limiting its exposure and waiting for the Obama campaign to make a mistake … or for some new tactic to reveal itself.

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