The first question for tonight’s presidential debate

Here’s the first question that ought to be asked at tonight’s presidential debate:

“Senator McCain, what are you doing here?”

McCain has used the Wall Street crisis to justify a series of perverse stunts since Wednesday in which he “suspended” his campaign and tried to postpone tonight’s debate as well as next week’s vice-presidential debate. As recently as last night he said he would take part in today’s debate only if Congress had reached an agreement about legislation to bail out the offending companies. No agreement has been reached, but this morning after a quick trip to Capitol Hill McCain announced that he was leaving for the debate in Mississippi anyhow.

So what was all of this grandstanding about?

The “suspension” of the campaign was bizarre from the outset. McCain cancelled an appearance on the David Letterman Show on Wednesday afternoon saying he had to rush back to Washington, DC to fix the financial crisis. Evidently nobody in DC could legislate without his presence – though McCain hasn’t been present on Capitol Hill since April 9. Yet this new-found urgency evaporated the moment McCain discovered it. He remained in New York on Wednesday and instead taped an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric. In fact, McCain stayed on in New York until the next day, attending a conference organized by Bill Clinton before flying back into Washington on Thursday afternoon.

There, McCain spent more time in his Senate office meeting with presidential campaign advisers than with Congressional leaders working on the bailout agreement. His vaunted search for a bipartisan deal involved talking to no Democrats. Later at the White House meeting that McCain and Bush had foisted on Barack Obama and Democratic leaders, John Boehner (one of the few negotiators McCain had bothered to talk with) raised a series of new proposals out of the blue. Thus the one intervention of McCain into the negotiations actually scuttled an agreement that had been announced earlier that afternoon.

McCain also promised on Wednesday to take his TV ads down during this “suspension”, but did not. He promised to refrain from partisanship while a bailout agreement was being brokered, but he hasn’t done so. Instead, his surrogates immediately fanned out to do TV interviews and criticized Obama’s actions with regard to the crisis. McCain also used the occasion to make multiple (free) TV appearances last night in which he talked, vaguely, about the negotiations (which he’d barely taken any part in).

During these interviews McCain repeated his earlier statements that he wouldn’t take part in Friday’s debate unless Congress had reached an agreement. Here he was on ABC:

GIBSON: Do we have a debate tomorrow night?

MCCAIN: Well I’m hopeful, very hopeful that we can. I believe that it’s very possible that we can get an agreement so that — in time for me to fly to Mississippi. I understand that there is a lot of attention on this but I also wish Senator Obama had agreed to ten or more town hall meetings that I had asked him to attend with me. Wouldn’t be quite that much urgency if he agreed to do that, instead he refused to do it.

GIBSON: What is the practical deadline? There would have to be an agreement — a bill that could be signed off, bipartisan, bicameral by tomorrow morning, by tomorrow noon?

MCCAIN: I don’t know exactly, Charlie. But again I’m hopeful we can get the outlines and the specifics that a lot of people want to see and get it done quickly…

For what it’s worth, last month McCain used the same complaint, that Obama refused to do joint appearances with him this summer, to justify the tone of his (often misleading) attacks on Obama. So that appears to be an all-purpose excuse for objectionable campaign tactics.

Anyhow, this morning McCain made a 90 minute trip to Capitol Hill, talked to a handful of Republicans, and left for home. About an hour later, with no agreement completed, McCain did another about-face and announced that he’s leaving for the debate after all. And in the spirit of bipartisanship McCain says he values, the announcement sought to score points against Obama and trashed Democrats:

His campaign issued a statement Friday morning saying he was now “optimistic” that a bipartisan bailout agreement would be reached soon, citing “significant progress” in the talks.

The statement was sharply critical of Mr. Obama, who, like Mr. McCain, returned to Washington on Thursday to take part in the bailout talks. The statement portrayed Mr. Obama as unduly partisan and insufficiently concerned with protecting taxpayer interests in the bailout negotiations, while Mr. McCain was framed as the leader of House and Senate Republicans seeking to reach a compromise agreement.

“The difference between Barack Obama and John McCain was apparent during the White House meeting yesterday where Barack Obama’s priority was political posturing in his opening monologue defending the package as it stands,” said the McCain campaign statement.
“John McCain listened to all sides so he could help focus the debate on finding a bipartisan resolution that is in the interest of taxpayers and homeowners. The Democratic interests stood together in opposition to an agreement that would accommodate additional taxpayer protections.”

The announcement gives the distinct impression that McCain is nearly alone in rising above partisanship and in looking out for American taxpayers:

John McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign was made in the hopes that politics could be set aside to address our economic crisis.

In response, Americans saw a familiar spectacle in Washington. At a moment of crisis that threatened the economic security of American families, Washington played the blame game rather than work together to find a solution that would avert a collapse of financial markets without squandering hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money to bailout bankers and brokers who bet their fortunes on unsafe lending practices.

So what happened to McCain’s “country first” stunt of scuttling the debate while Congress negotiates?

McCain had previously said that he would suspend his campaign—and so would not attend the debate—until an agreement was reached on the administration’s $700 billion mortgage proposal.

No such agreement has been reached, but Republicans said the standoff was hurting McCain’s campaign and that he would look terrible if he didn’t attend the nationally televised, eagerly anticipated debate, while Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was ready to go on stage.

I’m sure that John McCain has a ready explanation about what high-minded principles lie behind his sudden decision this week to fake-suspend his campaign, fake-rush back to Washington, fake-work on a bipartisan bailout agreement, and fake-postpone the presidential debate. Jim Lehrer should give him a chance immediately to explain.

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