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Joe Cutbirth

Joe Cutbirth

Posted: September 24, 2008 10:24 PM


Well, John McCain left the stump Wednesday and ran to his old comfort zone, Washington, D.C., hoping a publicity stunt framed as "suspending the campaign" would stop Barack Obama from talking about the fiscal crisis facing the country.

What else should we expect from a guy who asked Phil Gramm to write his economic program? My friends, as McCain often says, this strategy reeks of Charlie Black. It's vintage Karl Rove.

Once again, here's the formula: The news is bad, and polls are slipping, so launch an offensive by throwing something unexpected at your opponent. Surprise him with a subjective choice he can't ignore, and whatever he decides, tell the public "he doesn't share your values." If the mainstream media doesn't bite, scream "liberal bias" until the echo chamber drowns out the issue that was untenable in the first place.

It's Media Manipulation 101. How many times will national reporters let themselves be cowed by the pack of consultants that has steered the Bush machine and polluted national politics with this strategy for more than 30 years?

This is the most cynical transparent ploy of the campaign. Obama should dismiss it outright and counter McCain's ruse with an equally surprising suggestion.

He should offer to cancel the debate format this Friday in favor of a non-moderated, 90-minute discussion, where the two candidates sit down at the agreed time in front of the same audience with the national media present and discuss the economy calmly and rationally like two United States senators campaigning for the presidency.

In short, they should have an extemporaneous public conversation. That would be change we can believe in.

If McCain declines, Obama should still travel to Oxford, Miss., and do what any school board, city council, state assembly or congressional candidate would do if an opponent tried to sand bag a joint appearance at the last minute: debate an empty chair.

I nearly lost my lunch Wednesday when I read a Newsweek blogger crowing at the possibility that he may have played a role in McCain's decision to forgo the debate. In The Tricky Politics of McCain's Maneuver, Andy Romano wrote:

The announcement comes a day after this blog noted the remarkable similarities between McCain's list of recommended "improvements" for the mammoth $700 billion Treasury bailout bill and Barack Obama's--and criticized both candidates for continuing to "us[e] the bailout to bludgeon each other daily on the campaign trail," suggesting that the real political advantage might lie elsewhere.

"Why don't the two most powerful politicians in the country at this point--two politicians who profess to be uncommonly bipartisan--go back to Washington and lead the bipartisan effort to get America out of this catastrophic financial mess?" we asked. "Why don't they steer Congress in the direction--toward Main Street and away from Wall Street--they both agree it should go?"

When did Newsweek start dispensing advice to candidates, especially advice that takes them out of public forums away from reporters' questions and makes them less accessible to Americans who don't live on the East Coast? And by what measure are these guys "the two most powerful politicians in this country"?

McCain and Obama may get more daily media coverage than most politicians these days, and one of them likely will be president in about four months, but George Bush still sits in the Oval Office, and until mid-January this is his crisis.

It's Bush's regulatory program, his federal reserve chairman and his Treasury Department. Some major government action is likely, but Bush - not Obama or McCain - will play chief executive for the first round of disaster relief, hopefully with input from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reed.

The candidates on the other hand should feel pressure - despite Newsweek's bizarre agenda - to stay out on the campaign trail, where they can listen to working-class Americans and be questioned by local reporters and citizen journalists whose self-worth isn't tied to the seat they are assigned for the White House daily briefing.

They need to begin building rapport with us by having a conversation that will continue for one of them for at least the next four years.

The worst thing that could happen is for the future president - whomever it may be - to retreat to Senate committee rooms, dinners at The Palm and closed meetings with White House staff, where well-heeled lobbyists and bipartisan power brokers can coach him on the finer points of the issues and on how to decide what is best for the rest of us with little or no public input or scrutiny.

Bringing McCain and Obama to Washington, D.C., threatens to politicize the solution, which may be what Bush wants. McCain's campaign has been severly wounded by this crisis, so it isn't surprising he's capitulated. Obama should stay away from D.C. and continue to talk to voters.

And voters should expect the appropriate representative from each campaign to be present at each of the four scheduled debates.

In times like this, we should look for ways to nourish the national conversation, not starve it, and there simply isn't a better tool for getting millions of Americans to come together for a discussion during an election year than a presidential forum.

Now's the time for all of us to step-up as citizens and start talking to our friends and people we may not always agree with about this very complex issue - something few if any of us understand completely - so we can tell our leaders what WE want THEM to do. Not the other way around.

National news organizations should stop analyzing the political strategy behind decisions to attend or not attend this debate or any of the others. And they shouldn't let McCain reduce the coverage of the market meltdown to photo ops or let insider baseball from the campaign trail dominate stories about a solution to the financial crisis that is George Bush's to make.

They should demand the presidential debates go forward, and the best financial reporters in the country - in the world for that matter - should be in Mississippi on Friday, so they can ask tough questions in post-debate interviews and nail down answers about this disaster from the candidates and the people who advise them on financial matters.

If McCain cedes the evening and Obama shows up, reporters should ignore predictable calls McCain will make for a news black out. But they can't let Obama slide.

Obama should go to Mississippi, bring his "A" game and expect the grilling of his political life. This is the presidency, not American Idol.

Americans deserve to know both candidates' plans for the economy, including who helped write them, how the numbers add up and where on Earth they believe this ridiculous pot of $700 billion everyone keeps fantasizing about is going to come from.

McCain seems to have made his choice. But if Obama wants to lead the country, he should step up and help Americans who don't necessarily understand all the aspects of this historic crisis come together and begin a long-term national conversation about our economy that focuses on people and issues outside Washington, D.C.

And that conversation should begin on Friday at Ole Miss.