John McCain called Wednesday for the first presidential debate, scheduled for Friday in Mississippi, to be delayed and urged Barack Obama to join him in Washington for a high-level meeting of congressional leaders to address the financial crisis. Obama responded that the debate should go on.
In a roll of the dice that jolted the presidential race, McCain said he is suspending his campaign - and his fundraising and campaign advertising - as of Thursday and will return to Washington. He also scrapped a planned appearance on David Letterman.
President Bush, in his televised address to the nation Wednesday night, said he had invited both men to come to the White House on Thursday for a summit meeting with congressional leadership.
A McCain aide told Politico Wednesday night that the campaign is proposing to the Presidential Debate Commission and the Obama camp that if there's no bailout deal by Friday, the first presidential debate should take the place of the vice presidential debate, currently scheduled for October 2 in St. Louis.
Under this scenario, the vice presidential debate would be rescheduled for a date yet to be determined, and take place in Oxford, Miss., where the first presidential debate is currently slated to be held.
"I am calling on the president to convene a meeting with the leadership from both houses of Congress, including Senator Obama and myself," McCain said. "It is time for both parties to come together to solve this problem."
Obama rebuffed the proposal, though there was no immediate reaction to the more detailed plan for swapping debates. “It’s my belief that this is exactly the time the American people need to hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible with dealing with this mess," he told reporters in Florida, where he has been prepping for Friday's event. "What I think is important is that we don’t suddenly infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics," he said.
He also took a real shot at McCain: "Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time," Obama said. "It’s not necessary for us to think that we can do only one thing, and suspend everything else."
Debate organizers also said they have no plans to postpone. "We have been notified by the Commission on Presidential Debates that we are proceeding as scheduled," said the University of Mississippi, which was to host Friday's encounter. "We are ready to host the debate, and we expect the debate to occur as planned," Ole Miss said in a statement.
Obama aides also quickly countered that their campaign had first reached out to McCain - early Wednesday morning - to suggest that the two nominees put out a joint statement on the crisis that has roiled economic markets and brought Washington to a virtual standstill.
"At 8:30 this morning, Senator Obama called Senator McCain to ask him if he would join in issuing a joint statement outlining their shared principles and conditions for the Treasury proposal and urging Congress and the White House to act in a bipartisan manner to pass such a proposal," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton in an email sent just minutes after McCain's statement. "At 2:30 this afternoon, Senator McCain returned Senator Obama’s call and agreed to join him in issuing such a statement. The two campaigns are currently working together on the details."
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers cast the call in a different light: "Senator Obama phoned Senator McCain at 8:30 am this morning but did not reach him. The topic of Senator Obama’s call to Senator McCain was never discussed. Senator McCain was meeting with economic advisers and talking to leaders in Congress throughout the day prior to calling Senator Obama. At 2:30 pm, Senator McCain phoned Senator Obama and expressed deep concrn that the plan on the table would not pass as it currently stands. He asked Senator Obama to join him in returning to Washington to lead a bipartisan effort to solve this problem."
The financial crisis already had all but hijacked the presidential contest, but McCain's startling statment brought the race to a standing stop.
McCain said his goal was to have a bailout package in place by the start of next week. McCain wants Obama, key committee chairmen and the congressional leadership to "lock themselves in a room for the next 100 hours or however long it is between now and Monday morning. and achieve some
kind of consensus on something," said senior McCain adviser Mark Salter.
"Right now, the American people . . . have no sense of confidence in what has occurred so far. The deal didn't seem to be achieving consensus."
In Congress, however, Democrats suggested that a summit attended by both nominees would slow the sense of progress toward a bailout deal that had built throughout the day on Wednesday.
"It would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation’s economy," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership; not a campaign photo op." A Democratic source told Politico that Reid called McCain Wednesday and told him it "wouldn't be helpful" for him to come to Washington.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer told CNN that McCain's suspension of his campaign was "weird and odd."
Schumer said that the Senate had not heard "hide nor hair" from the Arizona senator during any of the negotiations prior to this announcement, save for a suggestion or two.
McCain was undeterred. "I am confident that before the markets open on Monday we can achieve consensus on legislation that will stabilize our financial markets, protect taxpayers and homeowners, and earn the confidence of the American people," he predicted. "All we must do to achieve this is temporarily set politics aside, and I am committed to doing so."
A top McCain aide also indicated that the campaign had grown suspicious that congressional Democrats were trying hang the possible passage of a bailout package on whether McCain would support it. Democrats were "warily circling" McCain and were not going to commit toa deal unless he did, said the aide.
Rogers took direct aim at Reid: "Unfortunately, Senator Reid is putting partisan politics ahead of the business of the American people. But there should be no mistake: 24 hours ago Reid and his Democratic colleagues on the Hill couldn't have been more desperate for Senator McCain's help in resolving this crisis. Now they've got it. "
McCain compared the financial crisis to 9/11, saying national leaders must work together to find a solution.
"We must show that kind of patriotism now," McCain said. On Wednesday, McCain talked to President Bush, Republican leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and John A. Boehner (Ohio) in Congress, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Obama.
His action Wednesday was an extraordinary move, plainly aimed at appearing presidential and above the partisan fray at a time of great challenge. But, coming a week after McCain struggled to find his footing on the crisis and as national and state polls show him slipping in large part because of voter concerns over the economy, it also amounts to a dare: How can Obama say no?
Were the Democrat to insist on going forward with the debate and to continue to campaign as usual he'd walk right into McCain's trap, seeming to place politics above what many are portraying as a dire national crisis and validating the Arizona senator's slogan that it's he who puts "coutry first."
McCain's move is also designed to recast the financial debate as it relates to the presidential campaign. Since last week, the Republican and his top aides have sought to broaden the discussion beyond the details of just what went wrong and how to fix the system and make the political question one of who is the better leader in a time of great national challenge. With a Republican president in the White House presiding over the near-meltdown and voters favoring Obama on the economy, transforming the matter from one about policy to one about character and leadership is imperative.