Time Out?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008 7:55 AM

It was either a burst of bipartisanship or a self-serving political tactic.

By grandly announcing yesterday that he is putting his campaign on hold, John McCain could be said to have put his country first by trying to join with Barack Obama to push through a federal package to rescue the economy.

Well, maybe. But he's really just campaigning by other means. Six weeks before Election Day, nothing a candidate does is nonpolitical.

The Wall Street meltdown is a tough issue for McCain, a career deregulator and a frequent supporter of the administration that presided over this debacle. It is probably a major factor in Obama's rise in the polls over the last week. The president of his party was about to give a prime-time address on how screwed up the economy is to make the case for the $700-billion-or-more bailout. Joining hands with Obama takes the edge off.

It was Obama who opened the door by calling his rival yesterday morning and suggesting a joint approach. The fact is, the two senators are now crucial to how Capitol Hill resolves this crisis. The Republicans are not going to support a hugely expensive plan that their presidential nominee is opposing, and the Democrats, with an eye on Obama, aren't going to pass a Bush package unless the GOP provides the necessary votes.

Why would McCain also try to delay Friday's debate in Mississippi--especially one that was to focus on foreign policy? (A stupid rule, by the way, that should now be dropped with both sides' consent.) Because he'd rather be seen as a hard-working lawmaker than stand on a Mississippi stage with his opponent for 90 minutes? Is this such a financial 9/11 that Congress can't hammer out a bill without John McCain's presence?

Mac has a knack for resetting the clock. He shook things up by picking Palin. He canceled the first night of his convention--the Bush/Cheney night--because of a hurricane. Now he says he's suspending his campaign.

Now it's a game of chicken. Will Obama really go to Ole Miss if McCain continues to boycott? Would Jim Lehrer participate in a one-candidate debate? Should I cancel my flights?

By the way, I did not think the president gave a very strong presentation last night. He looked tired and read the thing, line by line. But if he's now talking about the need for oversight and to rein in CEO pay, how much is left to fight about with the Democrats?

NYT: "After weeks of increasingly aggressive attacks on Mr. Obama -- and no doubt aware of a series of polls suggesting an erosion in his support -- Mr. McCain cast himself as willing to set aside partisan politics to do what was right for the country, and challenged Mr. Obama to do the same. But he now also faces the task of rallying support from his own party, which is divided over the rescue and has long viewed him with a degree of wariness."

Washington Times: "Less than a month after he canceled the first night of the Republican National Convention, Mr. McCain again flashed his signature maverick style, declaring President Bush's proposed $700 billion bailout dead and, as he's done so often in the past, said he could help broker a bipartisan deal to cut through the political clutter."

WP: "What he risks, if things don't go as he hopes, is a judgment by voters that his move was a reckless act by an impetuous and struggling politician that hardened partisan lines in Washington at just the wrong moment and complicated efforts to deal with the biggest financial crisis in more than half a century."

Boston Globe: "McCain's move was another extraordinary twist in a race full of extraordinary twists. It reflects not only the deep concerns of Republican and Democratic leaders about the grave state of the economy, but also the shifting dynamics in a presidential contest that polls suggest has swung in Obama's favor. Voters' focus on the Wall Street crisis and the economy - long an advantage for Obama - has helped give him an edge this week nationally and in key battleground states."

Liberal bloggers are scoffing at McCain. The Nation's Ari Melber:

"After calling for debates all summer, John McCain is cutting and running from the first one.

"In one of the weirder political ploys of a long campaign season, McCain says he will 'suspend' his campaign on Thursday. He is also pushing for a postponement of the first presidential debate. McCain says he is taking these dramatic steps because he wants to focus on congressional negotiations over the bailout. It's not clear how a national presidential debate -- the ultimate bully pulpit in this political season -- would detract from any effort to build national consensus on solutions for the economic crisis."

Ana Marie Cox twitters: "Suspending the campaign is classic McCain. It is also something he wouldn't do if he were winning. Or at least he'd be stopped from doing it."

New Republic's Jonathan Cohn:

"While I am willing believe that McCain's interest in bipartisan reform is sincere, it's hard not to see at least some gamesmanship at work here. The McCain campaign has been reeling for the last few days and it's fast becoming apparent voters simply don't trust him on the economy as much as they trust Obama. The only break in the economic news has been the revelations about McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, and his lobbying ties to Fannie Mae. Anything that disrupts the present political cycle is, by definition, good for McCain . . .

It feels to me a bit like McCain is trying to use this crisis as a way to prop up his political fortunes. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose, except perhaps for a politican whose campaign slogan is 'Country First.' "

Time's Joe Klein:

"McCain suspends his campaign because of financial crisis? Oh please. Given today's poll numbers--even Fox has him dropping--it seems another Hail Mary (like the feckless selection of Palin) to try make McCain seem a statesman, which is difficult given the puerile tenor of his campaign's message operation.

"Perhaps, if he's really interested in this financial stuff, McCain should propose that he and Obama change the topic from foreign policy to economics this Friday night--they could even stage the debate in Washington, so they wouldn't have to stray far from the bailout negotiations. I'm sure their fellow members of the Senate won't mind if McCain and Obama spend a few hours enlightening the public on this crucial subject.

"Oh, and By the Way : I thought it was fairly gimmicky for the Obama campaign to reach out to McCain to make a joint statement of principles about the bailout, too."

The right isn't wild about McCain's move, either. Let's hang out on National Review's Corner. Ramesh Ponnuru:

"I think McCain's decision reduces the likelihood that Congress will pass anything and the likelihood that McCain will win the election."

Kathryn Jean Lopez: "Obama may win this campaign moment yet. If McCain protests, he looks petty."

But Power Line's Paul Mirengoff dissents: "As a political matter, though, this seems like a good move. If Obama agrees, he's following McCain, not leading. Moreover, Obama seems to have 'momentum' on his side right now, so a 'time-out' might help McCain marginally.

"If Obama doesn't agree, he may be seen as unwilling to put 'country first.' And if a deal is negotiated (something I think most Americans would like to see, as a general matter), then McCain will receive credit and Obama won't."

Marc Ambinder's take: "The tough thing here for McCain is that nobody in Washington asked him to come back; nobody seems to need him to come back; and that Democrats simply do not trust John McCain's motives."

John Dickerson: "It's not clear what exactly McCain is going to do in Washington. He doesn't sit on any of the relevant committees and everyone is already deep in negotiations. Still, he's coming anyway. It doesn't make much logical sense. The only way to understand it is politically: In a presidential campaign, the surest sign that a candidate is playing politics on an issue is when he claims not to be playing politics on an issue. The only way for McCain to convince everyone that his intentions are 100 percent pure is for him to drop out of the race completely. A campaign doesn't end--and its distracting affects don't disappear--just because one candidate says so."

WP/ABC may have given Obama a 9-point lead, but the NBC/WSJ says Obama is ahead by just 48-46:

"One reason that Sen. McCain may remain competitive: The survey shows that voters have grown even angrier about the direction of country than they were over the summer, a sentiment that the Arizona lawmaker has appealed to with a passionate populist message. For more than a week, he has eviscerated Wall Street and Washington alike for the greed, corruption and incompetence he says lie behind the financial meltdown." (And LAT/Bloomberg has up Obama up 49-45.)

Meanwhile, Katie Couric stumped Sarah Palin yesterday, and I explore her continued avoidance of most media types here.

Usually, when we the media find a politician stretching the truth, the pol at least adjusts the language. But that hasn't always happened in this campaign, as Jonathan Chait points out:

"About a week after John McCain's campaign unveiled a vice-presidential nominee who incessantly boasted about her decision to turn down federal funding for a notoriously pointless bridge ('I told Congress "thanks, but no thanks" on that Bridge to Nowhere'), the press corps began to notice that Sarah Palin had, in fact, vigorously championed the project until it was no longer tenable. Political fibs, even brazen ones such as this, are hardly unprecedented. What happened next, though, was somewhat unusual. Despite having its claim exposed in nearly every media outlet, the McCain campaign continued to assert it anyway, day after day, dozens of times in all. It was as if Bill Clinton had persisted in his claim that he did not have sexual relations with that woman even after the appearance of the semen-stained dress.

"But what happened after that was even more unusual, and possibly without precedent: McCain's supporters simply suggested that the truth or falsity of their statements didn't matter. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said this to Politico about the increased media scrutiny of the campaign's factual claims: 'We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it.' Republican strategist John Feehery made the point even more bluntly, telling The Washington Post: 'The more The New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there, and the bigger truths are: She's new, she's popular in Alaska, and she is an insurgent.' Then, he added, 'As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter.'

"Here we have the distilled essence of the McCain campaign's ethos: Perception is reality. Facts don't matter."

Remember earlier this week when the McCain campaign ripped the New York Times as in the tank for Obama for reporting that Fannie Mae and Fredie Mac had paid the firm of campaign manager Rick Davis nearly $2 million? The campaign didn't challenge the facts, and then there was this followup on payments from Freddie Mac:

"One of the giant mortgage companies at the heart of the credit crisis paid $15,000 a month from the end of 2005 through last month to a firm owned by Senator John McCain's campaign manager, according to two people with direct knowledge of the arrangement." Davis says he's taken no equity from the firm based on new profits from the firm for 18 months.

And that's about it, as John Nichols observes in the Nation:

"Like his vice-presidential candidate, Davis is suddenly unavailable to the press.

"Davis had been scheduled to lunch Wednesday with reporters and editors at a high-brow Washington event sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. It would have been a perfect place to clear the air, if Davis chose to do so. Instead, the embattled campaign manager announced hours before the event that he would send an underling. Davis, it was announced, would be 'heading out on the trail.'

"Perhaps he and Sarah Palin can hide from the press together."

Finally, Andrew Sullivan has taken issue with yesterday's column, in which I reported on questions he had raised about whether Sarah Palin is really the mother of 5-month-old Trig and quoted from e-mails he had sent Michael Goldfarb and other McCain aides on the subject:

"Kurtz published my confidential emails to Goldfarb, having been contacted by Goldfarb to write the story.

"I should reiterate two critical things: I have never claimed that Trig Palin is not Sarah Palin's biological son. In fact, I have gone to enormous lengths never to say that, going silent for two days to figure it out and decided to leave it alone. Why? Because I had no proof of anything, only questions . . .

"Like everyone else, I have been trying to get some answers to some factual questions from the McCain campaign but they refuse to provide them. But for the McCain campaign to go to these lengths, violating core confidentiality of private good-faith questions, is something that has never happened to me before in journalism. I am also amazed that a fellow journalist would publish such emails in full. But since this is now all in the open, you deserve to know what your blogger has been trying to do in private for three weeks: just get a factual answer to a factual question on the record.

"They won't. They cannot take the time to confirm on the record that Trig is Sarah's biological son, but they will try to smear the person asking. What does that tell you?"

I do think Sullivan, like any journalist, is entitled to ask any question he wants. The campaign can choose whether to comment or not. So I asked Goldfarb yesterday for an unambiguous, on-the-record statement about Palin and the baby. Here is what he said, referencing the fact that Palin says she deliberately dressed to hide her pregnancy for months:

"These rumors are false. It is her baby. The whole thing is absurd. All of this rests on the fact that she wore her pregnancy extremely well. A couple of months later, there are a ton of pictures showing she is obviously pregnant. It's ridiculous. There's just nothing to it. We're not going to release her gynecological records to prove it. It's just madness."

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