This was supposed to be a column about what to watch for in tonight's presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. At press time, we don't even know if there will be a debate.
The plan, which is tentatively still in place, is for Jim Lehrer to ask a series of questions about foreign policy and national security. Each candidate gets two minutes to respond, and then they share a five-minute "discussion" period for each question.
This debate should have favored McCain. He could give his punchy answers about killing terrorists and spreading liberty, and let Obama mumble about restoring our alliances. McCain is most comfortable, and most passionate, when he's talking about foreign policy. Debates are about memorable moments, and if there's anywhere where McCain is more likely to get off a cutting line and Obama is more likely to walk into a gaffe, it should be the foreign policy debate.
This is why McCain's gambit this week, grandiosely "suspending" his campaign and calling on the debate to be postponed unless leaders in Washington can hammer out a deal on the proposed Wall Street bailout, was so ill-advised.
For the past week, politicians of all stripes have been flailing desperately to sound like they have any idea what to do about our economic woes, and McCain has been among the most embarrassingly desperate of the flailers, at one point suggesting that if he were president he would fire SEC Chairman Chris Cox -- which, at least until the Supreme Court adopts the unitary executive theory and finds independent agencies unconstitutional, the president cannot do. McCain should have been looking forward to a scheduled event that would force the debate to return to ground where he's more sure-footed. Instead, he threw that event into jeopardy.
Whatever the potential upside of posing as the above-politics man-of-action who Gets Things Done, the risk was simply too great. Obama cannily responded by pointing out that "it is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once." Simply by following McCain's lead and attending yesterday's meeting with President Bush and congressional leaders, Obama has proven his point.
Since the meeting did not result in an immediate compromise, the McCain campaign is stuck in the position of making his attendance at the debate contingent upon the wranglings in Washington. What if Congress inches toward a deal but doesn't get all the way there? Will McCain claim that this is enough to allow the debate to go forward? Or will he play chicken, hoping that the Commission on Presidential Debates -- none-too-pleased about the idea of rescheduling -- doesn't go ahead with an "empty podium" debate featuring only Obama?
Even if Washington reaches a consensus on a bailout plan, it's virtually certain that either Lehrer or Obama will mention that McCain floated the idea of pulling out. McCain will have managed to make himself look weaker than Obama on an evening when he should be doing just the opposite.
Some have described McCain's decision to start a debate over the debate as a roll of the dice. But as any craps player knows, not every roll of the dice is the same -- the balance of risk and reward depends on where on the table you put your money. This week McCain placed a sucker's bet.
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