Sen. John McCain broke about even in his first debate with Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, but it was the 48 hours or so leading up to that singularly inconclusive event that may have severely damaged the GOP nominee’s presidential hopes. In that short amount of time the Arizona lawmaker managed to heighten long-held voter concerns about his volatile temperament.
Seemingly stimulated by a prominent poll that showed, because of the financial crisis, his opponent taking the lead in what had been a dead heat, McCain impulsively suspended his campaign, asked for an ill advised White House summit with the major players in the $700 billion bailout proposal, threw a temporary monkey wrench into the tentative agreement that had been reached and then had little or nothing to offer in place of it. At the same time he shook up the University of Mississippi, the television networks and untold numbers of others by indicating he might not show up for a debate that had cost millions to arrange.
Not bad for a couple of days work if self-immolation was your ultimate goal, which of course it wasn’t. What came out of this was a vision of a suddenly desperate candidate flailing around to find a solution rather than keeping an arm’s length distance from what was happening in Washington, as was the case with Obama. The erratic behavior intensified the uncertainty about his ability to stay calm in times of crisis. It was as though suddenly one of his computer chips had gone haywire, as it seemed to have in 2000 when he blew a burgeoning chance at the GOP nomination in a Virginia speech that insulted Republican evangelicals.
It is far too early, although it seems late in terms of the election calendar, to call him out. There are two debates remaining, not counting a vice presidential affair that could play a more important role than usual, and everyone knows that a few days can be a month in politics.
Also, there is the great unknown about how much race will figure in the balloting. That part of the equation is unquantifiable because of voter reluctance to openly discuss their position on Obama’s race. What they say outside the voting booth may not correspond with what they do in its privacy.
Voters at this stage appear to be more convinced that the Democrat could handle the huge economic challenges than the Republican who has a difficult time escaping a GOP administration on whose watch these problems occurred. That Obama actually has far less experience in domestic, as well as foreign, aspects of the job than his opponent really doesn’t matter. The party in power when the roof caves in is the one that traditionally gets buried in the debris in the next election.
McCain’s strength has been his reputation as a maverick, one who doesn’t always adhere to the party line and reaches out frequently to the other side of the aisle in fashioning his political agenda. Sustaining that as a salable commodity, however, requires enough political agility to avoid suddenly stumbling off down a clearly dangerous path. That was what happened to McCain last week and it may have made a bad situation worse for him by highlighting his volatility.
He seemed back on track in the Mississippi debate, speaking confidently and calmly about his superior experience in foreign policy and the fact he would bring fiscal restraint to government by a broad use of the veto. It may or may not have softened some of the shock of his performance earlier in the week.
McCain now has to hope his experience advantage will be highlighted in the next two clashes with Obama or that the Democrat will make a serious mistake in the next few weeks that will somehow offset these concerns about McCain’s seeming tendency for impulsive action. It’s a long shot.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)