McCain Back in Debate: Desperate or Diligent?

Twists and turns continue to pop up along the campaign trail and this week’s came on Wednesday, when Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain announced plans to suspend his campaign to help broker a deal in Washington on a financial bailout package. But he didn’t stop there, adding that unless Congress reached an agreement, he wouldn’t participate in tonight’s first presidential debate. Then, amid infighting and stalled talks, he had become confident progress had been made and decided to attend the debate. The news had become all about McCain.

Was this a brilliant tactical move or the act of a desperate candidate who’s trending downward in the polls?

“To some extent, this is kind of the fighter pilot in him and also kind of crazy guy in him. When he feels like he needs to shake things up, he just does and it’s totally unpredictable what he’s going to do,” says Michael Tanner, a Cato Institute fellow. “This is also McCain’s vision of himself as a heroic image who charges in; it’s always a morality play with him: This is a crisis, I’m going to be the nonpartisan guy, put it all aside, rush in and I’m going to save everything.”

It has certainly raised questions. One is how constructive a role either presidential candidate could really play in a resolution. Inserting presidential politics into the mix, argued leaders on Capitol Hill, only amplified the problem, with House Republicans leading the revolt.

By most news accounts, McCain accomplished little, as he was largely silent at Thursday’s White House meeting. But in a statement announcing he would debate rival Sen. Barack Obama after all, McCain’s campaign defended his actions, saying, “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. …The Democratic interests stood together in opposition to an agreement that would accommodate additional taxpayer protections.”

Larry Berman, a University of California, Davis political scientist, says it was important for the two candidates to appear engaged in the negotiations to help restore some confidence in voters and the markets.

Both men have said they’ll return to Washington after the debate to continue work on the resolution.

Many historical examples have been dug up to make comparisons between the 2008 race and elections past. But Berman believes the lesson Obama might learn the most from comes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1936 also had to deal with economic recovery and reform of the nation’s banking and financial systems, which suffered from what he called financial monopoly, speculation, and reckless banking. “FDR said, ‘I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.’ This is the window for Obama right now if he chooses to phrase it just like

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