Starting Gate: To Debate Or Not To Debate

With apologies to William Shakespeare, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged pundits or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by doing so, end them (and win an election).

John McCain is not Hamlet but this campaign is reaching heights that equal the great literary works of The Bard. The latest scene unfolds against a backdrop of great national unease. How bad is the situation? Well, if you believe President Bush, it's hard to imagine a worse possible scenario than the one he laid out to the nation last night.

"The government's top economic experts warn that without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic, and a distressing scenario would unfold," the president said.

How distressing? "More banks could fail, including some in your community," he claimed. "The stock market would drop even more, which would reduce the value of your retirement account. The value of your home could plummet. Foreclosures would rise dramatically. And if you own a business or a farm, you would find it harder and more expensive to get credit. More businesses would close their doors, and millions of Americans could lose their jobs. … And ultimately, our country could experience a long and painful recession."

Into that stepped McCain yesterday, who suspended his campaign activities to head back to Washington and presumably save the day. While pundits, analysts and Democrats rail against what they see as a cynical political move, the McCain campaign hopes the image most voters get is one of a leader who puts aside petty politics to solve a problem. The truth is probably somewhere in-between.

With indications that Washington is edging ever-closer to a deal on a Wall Street bailout, the issue of whether or not the debate happens may be moot by the time Friday night rolls around. But should the negotiations stall on what's shaping up to be a monumentally important piece of legislation, will McCain show up in Oxford, Mississippi? And, if he doesn't, what would happen?

McCain is already receiving a great deal of criticism from Democrats, pundits and other observers for his moves so far. They are calling it a gimmick, saying that it's bringing the campaign into a complicated and urgent problem and scoffing at the senator for a seeming inability to do two things at once.

But anecdotal evidence suggests there is a great unease among voters about bailing out a financial industry which got itself into the mess in the first place. And it's not just Republicans who have been hammering away at the Treasury Secretary on the Hill over these issues in the last couple of days. There's a consensus that something needs to be done, however, and if McCain gets a little credit for something that helps the financial system without angering voters, it may be worth the slings and arrows he'd take for missing a debate.

Around The Track

  • "I presume he did that in good faith since I know he wanted -- I remember he asked for more debates to go all around the country and so I don't think we ought to overly parse that." – Former President Bill Clinton, who told ABC News this morning that he doesn't believe McCain is seeking to postpone Friday night's debate because he is "afraid" to debate Obama.
  • "The Obama team has not figured out yet that McCain is waging an asymmetrical campaign, meaning at times he will take a risky, counterintuitive course, just as he did on Wednesday" – Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet, who reports that Obama's campaign was "caught off guard" by McCain's announcement yesterday.
  • "I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you." – Sarah Palin, reports.