McCain's Debate Ploy

by: demondeac

Thu Sep 25, 2008 at 12:23

demondeac is Ross Smith, Director of Debate at Wake Forest University and founder of

John McCain said that getting an economic plan accomplished was so important that he needed to suspend his campaign. While that may or (almost certainly) may not be reasonable, whether or not tomorrow night's debate should be put on hold is a separate question. McCain has made no explicit arguments (claims supported by reasons) for postponing the debate. At best he argues by enthymeme, leaving it to the listeners to discover some argument for themselves. Obama has argued, without refutation from McCain, that holding the debate is important so the American people can hear from their candidates, that presidents must be able to multitask, and that their airplanes and other means of staying in contact allow the candidates to stay sufficiently in contact with Congress. The "threat" not to debate is a ploy.

Nothing wrong with ploys. This one is ironic in that the ploy is a tactic of the campaign that McCain has nominally "suspended." For now, the ploy is working in that McCain has garnered a great deal of attention for his refrain that he is a maverick man of action. As long as the debate happens Friday night, McCain will likely not be hurt.

The debate most likely will happen. As I write, and hours before McCain makes it to Washington (along with Obama) to meet at the White House, the folks actually responsible for reaching an agreement in Congress are meeting to hammer out the details. McCain and Obama will most likely give political cover to members of their parties by simply showing up today. Sufficient progress will then be declared so that the debate can go forward. Disagree? Intrade has a new market up today, currently trading (on very low volume) at 70% chance the debate happens.

But there is still a chance McCain's bet (ploy), and those of the Intraders, is a loss. If the debate does not happen as scheduled, it's hard to see how that's a plus for McCain. There really are no decent arguments for canceling or postponing the debate. And remember this: the only way the debate is canceled is if McCain's return to Washington (where he has not darkened the door of the Senate since April) fails to cement a deal that appears to be all but concluded. The charges, already being levied by Democrats and Republicans alike, that he is politicizing the deal would then have more traction.

Below the fold I will review the potential arguments for postponement in more detail.  

demondeac :: McCain's Debate Ploy
One argument might be that the American people need to hear more about the economy and that the "real" debate is on the bailout and is being held in Congress. This argument is all but empty.

First, a week ago the Commission on Presidential Debates had already let the candidates know that despite its originally being devoted to foreign policy, there would be questions addressing the financial crisis.

Second, it's not as if McCain will be openly debating in Congress Friday night. There is no "real debate" there for the people to hear. Instead, there are frantic lobbyists and closed door negotiations.

Third, Obama is right that presidents cannot afford to focus on only one agenda item at a time. Just this week we have North Korea restarting a nuclear reactor, terrorism in Pakistan and Africa, Syria amassing 10,000 troops on their border with Lebanon, Russian warships visiting South America, and the shutdown of Russian markets to name but a few other "crises." History shows no need to halt debates because of ongoing problems, however severe. The Obama campaign released a basic memo on the subject.

Nor is there an argument that we must postpone the debate as if there were a hurricane or moment for grieving. The economic difficulties have been with us and will still be regardless of bailout legislation.

McCain might argue that he can't give his full efforts to both debate prep and the bailout. Obviously, he cannot make that argument. Both candidates are equally disadvantaged in prep time. Furthermore, it is a better argument to say we would benefit from hearing the candidates respond and debate with less prep, seeing how they adapt to unfolding situations.

The arguments in favor of holding the debate are fairly strong: the public wants it, the public needs it, and it's unfair to those who have planned the debate.

Polls and TV ratings history prove the public really does want debates. Yesterday Survey USA found:

A majority of Americans say the debate should be held on Friday. Just 10% say the debate should be postponed. A sizable percentage of Americans, 36%, think the focus of the debate should be modified to focus more on the economy. 3 of 4 Americans say the presidential campaigns should continue. Just 14% say the presidential campaigns should be suspended. If Friday's debate does not take place, 46% of Americans say that would be bad for America.

Although the survey participants were just those at home on a Wednesday afternoon and were not briefed on why the debate might be postponed, the poll does show that McCain has a big burden of proof hurdle here. Furthermore, the conventions and past years' debates ratings show that the debates are the most watched part of the political, democratic process. has already launched an online petition drive.

McCain might also suffer backlash from interested parties. The town of Oxford, Mississippi, would suffer an economic blow. McCain can be certain they would not let the complaint that he is grandstanding about Wall Street while ignoring Oxford's main street go unheard. Television networks have their Friday night programming at risk. Does McCain need to further alienate the media that he once called his "base?"

The media may already be suspicious if Dave Letterman's show last night is any indication. It's never good to lose the late night comedians.

Still more suspicion arises from the suggestion that tomorrow night's debate could be moved to next Thursday when the VP debate was to be held. With the media and partisans increasingly suspicious of Sarah Palin's ability and her poll numbers in decline, it cannot help McCain to stir up yet more criticism of her readiness for the office she seeks.

For now, Obama is clearly winning this debate about debates. McCain can recover by debating tomorrow night. I conclude with Obama's still unrefuted argument:

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He's going to declare victory... (4.00 / 1)
We cannot let him.

McCain is going to declare victory late today or early tomorrow and then head to the debate.

This must not be allowed. Take the time necessary for a good bill (if that's even possible) and FORCE him to either miss the debate or go back on his word.

He cannot be allowed to hoodwink the American people into believing he solved a crisis he wasn't even involved with.

agree (0.00 / 0)
Hopefully the Dems can give Obama a helping hand by slow-rolling the negotiations into the weekend, not finalizing anything until Sunday.

They'll need to issue the bill publicly and let Americans have a look at it, and we all know that many Democrats and Republicans are highly skeptical of this bill.

I say call McCain's bluff. I don't think McCain could recover if he doesn't show up for the debate.  He already looks like a chicken.

[ Parent ]
Dems and GOP may slow roll (0.00 / 0)
But McCain will likely still say that the agreement is essentially accomplished and that dotting i's and crossing t's is not what he meant when it came to the debate cancellation.

Visit DebateScoop for political candidate debate news and analysis.

[ Parent ]
McCain's Lost Letterman. He's ALREADY Hurt (4.00 / 1)
As long as the debate happens Friday night, McCain will likely not be hurt.

Make that "will likely not be demolished," and I'll agree.

But it seems fairly obvious that McCain has substantially accelerated the process of alienating the press by the latest caper.  And without the press backing his spin, the rest of the campaign simply looks to be doomed.  There's just too many lies, and too little substance.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

True but . . . (4.00 / 1)
My thesis is that "suspend the campaign" is distinct from "cancel/postpone the debate."

McCain would have been hurt by the former, and by skipping Letterman's show, even if he had not included the skip the debate part.
You do make a good point McCain may have done better had he said, "I am suspending campaigning but will debate since debates transcend campaigning and serve the American people."

Visit DebateScoop for political candidate debate news and analysis.

[ Parent ]
"Suspend the Campaign" Just Meaningless Verbage (0.00 / 0)
I never took the "suspend the campaign" line as anything but squid ink.  It's nonsensical on its face. And just to underscore it, he goes on Katie Couric?

Ducking the debate is what the squid ink was all about.  Or, more exactly (since debating on his meta-terms could be a win), making sure that anything stupid he'd do in the debate would not be the lead story.

So, yeah, they're distinct. But inseparable.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
True again (0.00 / 0)
The analytic separation just helps pull a bit more of the wool off the eyes. It exposes how naked his position is for those who, unlike you, are not already convinced.

Visit DebateScoop for political candidate debate news and analysis.

[ Parent ]

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