Just minutes ago, John McCain issued one of his campaign’s classic media-cycle-grabbing gambits. He’s announced that, as of tomorrow morning (so there’s still time to get out a digging press release or two), he’ll be “suspending” his campaign to return to Washington to work on the economy.
And that, of course, means that we’ll have to skip that pesky presidential debate upcoming in Oxford, Mississippi. So sorry, Mr. Lehrer!
Here at CJR, we often fault our political press for over-analyzing the political dimensions of the presidential campaign—what voting bloc is this policy tailored to, who likes this color necktie, etc.—rather than discuss how the programs proposed by the candidates would affect voters (read: news consumers).
But sometimes that kind of coverage is valid, and if there were ever such a time, now is it. Yes, McCain does have an important role to play in this crisis—if he doesn’t endorse the eventual bailout or rescue package, it’s unlikely it will garner enough Republican votes to pass. But there’s no reason he can’t (like Obama did this morning) lay out a few basic principles such a bill would have to meet before it would garner his support. But instead, he’s “suspending his campaign,” and, in the process, putting Obama into a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t position.
This move is so transparently political that covering it as a transparent act of politics is pretty much the only approach. And again, it’s the right one.
The stakes are especially high because McCain’s hostage in this crisis is one of the most treasured institutions of the media-politico season. The debates aren’t flawless, but they are the method by which millions and millions of voters get vital information on the major candidates and their plans for the country. (It is, in fact, the debates’ very prominence and importance, and McCain’s willingness to scrap one, that is meant to demonstrate how seriously he’s taking the crisis.)
Unfortunately, right out of the gates, cable’s framing was credulous.
“I don’t want to debate John McCain’s motives,” said Norah O’Donnell on MSNBC just after the news moved. But just a half hour later, she’d come around. “Do you think McCain be criticized for doing this, even though he says he wants to suspend politicking, that he’s doing it for pure political reasons—whether he’s looking at pools that show him dropping because of the focus on the economy ”
McCain is saying, essentially, one simple phrase to Obama: “Your move.”
He’s saying it to the press too.