Here’s the state of play as I write. Bush and Capitol Hill Democrats are hammering out an agreement to, in essence, bail out financial institutions and possibly other companies that hold bad debt, mainly mortgage-backed securities. Pretty much everybody on all sides agrees that the bailout proposal stinks to high heaven and is a fundamental violation of everything conservatives believe in and everything liberals believe in, is likely to be hugely unpopular with the public, and in the short term at least will put a big crimp on federal finances. But lots of people on all sides believe that the markets will be stabilized by the deal and will really implode without it, wrecking the rest of the economy. Since markets are all about perception, that could end up being the case, which makes the deal or something very like it necessary. McCain proposed a plan of his own which is not too dissimilar; Obama hasn’t proposed anything. So there aren’t really a lot of alternatives on the table, and no good ones.
Given the general rule that nothing this bad happens in Washington if it’s not bipartisan, the Democrats in the majority are deathly – and justifiably – afraid that if they agree to the deal, McCain and Congressional Republicans will run against it and crucify them. Republicans seem mostly resigned to support the deal in large numbers as long as the Democrats don’t try to hang too many wish-list items on it and turn it into the Mother of All Pork Barrels. And of course, McCain has long experience being the last holdout in the middle whose views dictate the direction of a bipartisan deal. So Bush, Paulson, Reid, Pelosi & Co. actually seem to need McCain in Washington to do what he’s done so often before, get in the middle of things and influence how a deal gets worked out that is just minimally acceptable enough for everyone to sign it. Obama’s presence, by contrast, is mostly superfluous, since nobody really thinks he’s a factor in what goes on in DC, and hot air is never in short supply anyway.
On the campaign trail, by contrast, Obama is benefitting in recent polls from the general sense that bad things are happening and somebody new might have better ideas; he clearly knows better than to spoil that by actually doing anything or having any ideas. Whereas McCain hasn’t been able to get traction from the outside looking in, and doesn’t really seem comfortable blowing the deal up, knowing the consequences. Accordingly, what McCain did today was announce that he’s suspending his campaign over the next several days to come to DC to get a deal done before markets open on Monday, and call on Obama to do the same and to reschedule Friday night’s debate in Oxford, Mississippi, the first one scheduled, focusing on foreign policy/national security. Obama has refused on both counts.
Which has led to the question of the day. McCain is needed in Washington; Obama’s not – and neither is McCain’s running mate, Gov. Palin, who obviously is not a Senator. Should McCain send her to appear on his behalf and debate Obama on Friday night?
Such a debate might actually be a good thing for the nation: people are concerned about whether Obama or Palin, both novices in the area of national security and in their first terms in major political office, are ready to be Commander-in-Chief, Obama on Day One, Palin if anything ever happened to McCain. That readiness issue is one of the core uncertainties in a campaign where neither side has really yet closed the deal with enough undecided voters to win. As a matter of political strategy, the answer to that question seems to come down to two things: whether or not McCain thinks Palin is ready after just a few weeks of prep to go toe-to-toe with Obama on national security two days from now, and whether McCain thinks it’s crucial to have the McCain-Obama debate on national security so McCain can expose Obama’s glib blandishments in detail on the issue.
Let’s walk through the decision tree of what happens if McCain sends Palin to Oxford to represent the campaign. Sending surrogates to campaign events is standard enough practice, but of course sending your subordinate to meet the other guy’s #1 is regarded throughout the worlds of politics, international affairs, and business as fairly insulting, and usually ends up with a cancelled meeting. Obama would probably refuse to debate her, but then again he might not, and McCain has to make the call not knowing for certain what Obama would do, and considering the risks and rewards of both.
Option One: Obama debates Palin.
Potential upsides for McCain:
(1) Expectations would be extremely low, especially if she’s dropped into the debate on barely more than a day’s notice – Palin’s limited exposure to the media has re-created the circumstances before her Convention speech, in which she’s being caricatured as totally ignorant and has a huge upside if she comes off well. We know from obervers of the 2006 Alaska Governor’s race that Palin is an experienced and skilled debater, although of course you can’t debate well if you aren’t 100% up to speed on the subject matter. By contrast, while Obama is well-practiced at BS-ing his way through national security issues he plainly doesn’t understand, he’s actually not a very good debater away from his TelePrompter, where he tends to stammer a lot. If she’s adequately prepared to stand toe to toe with the man universally hailed as the most golden-tongued speaker in the business, she wins just by not getting killed, and could devastate his campaign if she actually comes out his equal or better.
(2) Palin has the element of surprise – Joe Biden’s been preparing to debate Palin, Obama hasn’t.
(3) This would be a colossal television event, far more intensely watched than your usual political debate. Recall the huge ratings for Palin’s Convention speech.
(4) Obama can get awfully snippy when confronted and clearly doesn’t respect Palin at all. He’s already got a potentially bad rep for being dismissive of her, of Hillary, and of female reporters. The potential for him to aggravate the situation by sneering at her is high.
(5) Obama’s stature necessarily drops by talking to McCain’s understudy.
(1) Palin is, after all, a foreign policy novice, and unlike Obama this would be her first debate on these issues. She could easily come off poorly, and accelerate doubts about her.
(2) Obama often says things about national security that can be easily dismantled by anyone versed in the issues, but that Palin, even if well-prepped on her own points, might not take him apart on if she’s focused on hitting her own marks. McCain won’t miss the chance to pounce if Obama again thinks Afghans speak Arabic or calls for a worldwide ban on fissile materials.
(3) Nobody’s thinking about national security this week. McCain would rather have this debate closer to the election when the Wall Street crisis is in the rearview mirror a bit.
Option Two: Obama refuses to debate Palin
Potential upsides for McCain:
(1) After weeks of pushing the story that Palin is afraid of reporters, the media has to report that she was willing to face off against Obama and he was afraid of her.
(2) Obama faces the possibility that he comes off as thinking debating Palin is beneath him, which plays into the issues above as well as more general problems with the image of him as simultaneously arrogant, full of himself and glass-jawed.
(3) The media has prepped like crazy for Friday. They have hotel reservations in Mississippi. They won’t be happy if there is no debate.
Honestly, I don’t see one. The Obama camp would spin this as a gimmick, but everything that happens in campaigns is a gimmick. They would argue that McCain’s afraid to debate Obama (he is apparently playing this now as “McCain can’t multitask”) but everybody already knows McCain’s ready to be Commander-in-Chief, and all Obama does then is lower expectations for McCain entering the last two debates. The only loss is if Obama then argues that he doesn’t need any debates at all on national security and refuses to reschedule a third debate, but that is unlikely to go well for him.
Conclusion: If McCain thinks Palin is adequately prepped for a national security debate with Obama and there’s not too much downside to letting Obama evade a national security debate with McCain, sending Palin to represent McCain at the Oxford debate could actually be yet another bold, maverick move in a campaign that’s pulled off a few of them. And if Obama, as I think he would, refuses to debate her, there’s almost no downside to doing it.