Tactical Victory, Strategic Defeat

John McCain Needs More Than the Debates to Turn the Tide

It was the debate that nearly wasn’t.

With less than 24 hours before the first presidential debate between Republican Senator John McCain and his Democratic rival Barack Obama, it was unclear whether the 72-year old “maverick” would even show up at all. McCain, who at the start of the race had wanted no less than ten debates between himself and Senator Obama, on Thursday was claiming it was more important for him to revive the stalled negotiations over the financial rescue than make an appearance at the Friday evening meeting at the University of Mississippi. Ultimately, the media pressure on McCain to participate was too great, and on September 26th there he was, behind a podium fielding questions from Jim Lehrer.

Truth be told, he might as well have stayed in D.C.

It’s not that the debate went poorly — on the contrary, most observers gave McCain high marks. His performance was not as strong as it was at the Saddleback Forum or National Service Evening earlier in the year, but it was enough to claim a slight victory over the junior Senator from Illinois.

Rather, the reason McCain might as well have stayed in Washington is that the debate did little to change the minds of voters. Down three points nationally, with no silver lining in the state-by-state breakdown, Senator McCain needed a game changer, and the debate on Friday was clearly not that. Most of the responses from both candidates were mere snippets from well-worn stump speeches. Ostensibly about foreign policy, the 90-minute battle spent nearly half of its time on the financial crisis, and did little to shift voter focus from the economic issues that have been dragging down McCain’s numbers over the past week. McCain emphasized his experience and bipartisan credentials, Obama sought to tie McCain to Bush’s record, and neither delivered any gaffes or particularly memorable lines.

The tenor of the debate was mostly collegial — on a few occasions Obama tried to provoke McCain’s famous temper, interrupting him or tossing a snide comment his way, but by and large it was a civil affair. If anything, the debate showed how closely Barack Obama has moved his foreign policy position towards McCain’s in the past few months. On Iraq, the senators split hairs over time tables and time horizons. On Afghanistan, both agreed that more troops should be sent. On Iran, it was hard to tell the difference between Obama’s “direct aggressive diplomacy” and McCain’s plan for multilateral diplomatic pressure. Concerning Russia, both McCain and Obama agreed that Ukraine and Georgia should be allowed into NATO. Despite minor differences in philosophy, the broad strokes of both candidates’ positions appeared identical.

McCain may be able to score some points from this—before the debate was even concluded, a political ad had already been made from the eleven instances of Obama stating his agreement with McCain. But Joe Biden once tried to pull a similar trick with his “Joe is Right” ad, and all he got for his troubles was runner-up. Even if McCain succeeds where Biden failed, painting Obama as a “me-too” follower on foreign policy won’t compare to the traction he could have gotten from a legitimate foreign policy difference.

If he could move the national focus back to either foreign affairs (his strong suit) or moral values (where at least he stands a fighting chance), then McCain might staunch the slow bleed he’s been suffering from. But the chances of that happening are slim. As long as the rescue plan remains in negotiation, the economy is going to dominate the national discussion. And if the failure to pass the rescue package in the House of Representatives is any indication, these negotiations might well drag on.

If the mountain won’t come to McCain, then McCain must go to the mountain.

Emphasizing his experience and bipartisanship (as he did in the debate) will help McCain close the gap over who the voters trust more to run the economy, but it won’t be enough to let McCain overtake Obama completely. For that he needs something radical.

The McCain campaign has hit upon a winning idea: stop campaigning. McCain might be great in open audience forums, but he’s not going to win this election one town hall at a time, not with the gap that Obama has opened up. He needs to quit campaigning, just like Obama did back in late July when he went abroad for a “fact finding” trip. Only instead of Germany, McCain needs to travel back to the Senate and focus on forging a consensus on the rescue deal being crafted.

If Senator McCain can place himself right in the middle of the negotiations as they make progress, he might be able to build up credibility with voters as a competent manager of economic affairs. And if, at the end of the day, he can take credit for some fraction of the success, he might even turn the financial crisis to his favor. At a minimum, he should be able to get hours of free media on cable news networks and showcase his experience and bipartisanship.

The photo opportunities are all there. McCain and Bernanke, McCain and Paulson, McCain and his senate buddies — even better might be a few of McCain and Hillary. As she pieces together a 2012 run, what better way to start than with the landmark passage of the Clinton-McCain Asset Relief Program? There’s room for two to look presidential.

The risks are huge. What if the negotiations fail? What if McCain is seen as politicizing a needed piece of legislation? What if McCain’s involvement is not enough to change voters’ perceptions of him as less able on economic issues?

McCain’s current position is not desperate, but it still warrants taking a gamble. McCain is lucky that taking a gamble doesn’t have to be anything more than going back to the Capitol and doing his job.

Keith Yost is a graduate student in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division.