He did what?
The sound of jaws hitting the floor reverberated in Washington this afternoon when Republican presidential nominee John McCain announced that he would suspend his campaign and asked that Friday's debate be postponed. Why? Because of the "historic crisis in our financial system," said McCain, who intends to return to Washington tomorrow to participate in Wall Street bailout negotiations on the Hill.
In explaining his decision, McCain also referred to 9/11, patriotism, and partisan divisions that have "prevented us from addressing our national challenges." What he didn't mention was that Democratic nominee Barack Obama—at the urging of GOP Sen. Tom Coburn—had called him early this morning with an invitation to issue a joint statement that would outline agreed-upon principles and conditions for the Treasury's bailout proposal and urge Congress and the White House to join in the statement. And that when McCain called him back at 2:30 this afternoon, the two candidates had agreed on some broad principles.
Obama, taken by surprise with McCain's television appearance just minutes after the two had spoken, wasn't biting on the no-debate proposal. In a hastily arranged press conference in Florida, Obama said that the economic crisis makes the planned Friday debate in Mississippi—the first of three scheduled presidential matchups—"more important than ever."
"It's my belief that this is exactly the time that the American people need to hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible for dealing with this mess," Obama said. "It's going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once." He demurred when asked by reporters whether McCain's move was a political ploy.
McCain's unprecedented step, coming hours before President George Bush will address the nation about the financial turmoil, had many Republican strategists scratching their heads.
"I'm puzzled," said longtime McCain supporter Ed Rogers, chairman of BGR Holding, a lobbying firm formerly known as Barbour Griffith & Rogers. "I think we, us McCain people, we need the debate. Not having it just freezes the board, and the status of the game right now favors Obama."
"We don't need to quit the game," he said. "We need to change the game."
A Washington Post-ABC News national poll released this morning showed that Obama had moved ahead of McCain by 9 points from nearly a dead heat just two weeks ago. And, perhaps more telling, the poll found that voters concerned about the economy, which remains the electorate's No. 1 issue, preferred Obama by a 2-to-1 margin over McCain.
One longtime GOP adviser who has been involved in past presidential campaigns and debates says that McCain's move will spin out one of two ways: If he goes back to Washington and is seen as a catalyst for a palatable solution to the crisis, it will be a "great way for McCain to stop his bleeding on the economy," the adviser said. "But it can also be seen as a transparent political ploy, when he could just as easily appear at the debate, insist the discussion be all about the economy, and talk this through with Obama." The adviser's prediction: It will play out as a political ploy.
A McCain campaign official, who spoke with U.S. News after the candidate's announcement, said that the move "is not a PR stunt." McCain, he said, "wants to be in the middle of this because we've got an economic plan--we want oversight of where this money is going and assurances it won't happen again." (Sources say that Treasury officials believed that McCain planned to support the $700 billion Bush bailout proposal and were taken by surprise--to put it mildly--when McCain announced that he'd be returning to Washington to take part in the ongoing negotiations.)
The McCain campaign official also appeared to leave some wiggle room for the candidate to participate in the debate. "It could still happen," he said. "But we won't know until we get our arms around this tomorrow." GOP strategists say, however, that after calling for the debate to be postponed, it would be almost impossible politically for McCain to change his position.
Rogers was among those questioning what McCain can actually do when he heads back to the nation's capital. "The sentiment on the Hill is that by 3 o'clock Saturday afternoon, a package is going to pass," he said. "It's going to be unpopular but probably necessary. And I don't know what McCain is going to do when he comes back here--he really doesn't have any jurisdictional authority over this matter."
Obama said that he and McCain "agreed that this is a critical time to come together. The risk of doing nothing is economic catastrophe." The principles Obama said he'll insist on include an independent oversight board, no money to CEOs of failed institutions, and help for Americans "struggling to stay in their homes."
The Commission on Presidential Debates has notified the University of Mississippi, the location of the debate, that for now the debate will proceed as scheduled.