Delay or Debate? That is the Question

 Posted by  Melissa Harris-Lacewell

I got quite a jolt this afternoon. 
Wednesdays are ridiculously busy for me.  Between a noon faculty meeting and a three hour seminar, I didn't find my way back to the office until nearly 5pm.  That was when I checked the news headlines and read: "McCain Suspends Campaign."  
WHAT?!  I thought a million things all at once: Oh my gosh, has he gotten sick? Does this mean Palin is running at the top of the ticket? Is it a scandal?  Has Obama won by default?  I was horrified and thrilled in quick succession. Then I read past the headline, McCain is simply calling for a pause in the campaign and a delay of the debate so that he can focus on the economic crisis
What is it with the GOP and their stunning inability to multi-task?
First they have to delay the RNC Convention because of Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast.  This was necessary because President Bush had previously been unable to simultaneously enjoy his summer vacation and oversee a national disaster in August 2005 when Katrina destroyed New Orleans.  Worried that Americans would remember their callous indifference to televised American suffering three years earlier, the Republicans scaled back the first day of the convention until the storm passed. 

Sarah Palin announced her unblinking decision to run for the VP slot, but had to declare a media blackout while she packed her son for Iraq.  So much for her multi-tasking super mom status.  

Now, John McCain cannot simultaneously run for President and serve his country as a US Senator. He can't formulate policy about the current crisis and talk about that policy in a televised forum.  When would he get a nap?

I think I understand the political strategy here.  McCain is pitching himself as the "Country First" candidate. He figures that he can display himself as a serious statesman buckling down to find answers to our tough problems while Obama selfishly pursues election and demands additional forums to make lofty speeches. It ain't a bad strategy and it renews my faith (fear?) in the GOP election-spinning machine. But, I believe that this strategy is just spin and not substance. 

The policy effort on the economic bailout has enjoyed broad bi-partisan support in the Congress.  I am not saying the policy is good policy, only that there is not some emerging political crisis that must be averted by bringing the ol' Maverick to the table. Further, there is no reason that a DC vote midday on Friday should deter a Friday night debate in Mississippi. Air travel has made it possible to be in multiple cities in a single day. Also staffers do much of  the hard work in these moments and elected officials mostly show up to be counted and make speeches (which the staffers write). With email and telephones senators can oversee a great deal of legislative work and communicate with their colleagues while not in town.  I am not suggesting that senators never have to go to work, only that running for office while holding office is not exactly a novel experience for politicians. 

If McCain is not selflessly putting country first, what is his motivation for delaying the debate? It could be the pro-Obama drift in the national polls that worries him.  This could give Obama an edge in the all important post-debate spin on the major networks Friday night.  It could be his desire not to show up as the candidate of the incumbent party when Wall Street is looking like the Great Depression. Generally the Party in power loses when the economy is bad.  (Remember Bill Clinton: "It's the Economy Stupid?")  It could be just a simple assumption that it is always better to delay the moment when you have to be old and short standing next to Barack Obama.  Maybe he just wants to disrupt all those well planned debate watching parties organized by Obama-ites in the swing states. 

Whatever the reasons, I believe we must proceed with the debate.  The presidency is the ultimate multi-tasking job.  There will always be short term crises and long terms issues that must be simultaneously addressed. I have just had a 14 hour day of interruptions, delays, balancing disparate tasks, and making tough choices.  Surely I can expect my president to work at least as hard as me.  

Democracy cannot be delayed until everything is settled. Democracy is the messy and inconvenient process of self-governance. We the people deserve to see our candidates in a head-to-head comparison on the tough issues of the day, even if the day itself is a tough one. 

What do you think?  Delay or Debate?

1 Comment

It reminds me of a talk I had with a university president once about High Point University’s newly created Director of WOW! The university instituted ice cream trucks, valet parking, a concierge desk, a hot tub and free snacks to bring in more students. It might have done that, but did it lead to a better learning environment? McCain is running a WOW! campaign. I have no idea how it will shake out in the public mind, but it can't be good for democracy or governance

About this site

The mission of Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow Wilson School is to promote empirical research on democratic processes and institutions.  That broad mandate has attracted a diverse collection of faculty, students, and visitors pursuing a wide variety of research topics. However, the American electoral process has been a recurrent focus of interest for many of the scholars associated with CSDP and a frequent topic of conferences, colloquia, and other events sponsored by the Center.  As the 2008 campaign unfolds, we thought it might be helpful and fun to collect the election-related research, analyses, and offbeat insights of our extended scholarly community, both for our own edification and as a resource for others interested in how political scientists are thinking about the election.  We welcome contributions, comments, and suggestions. For more about the people and activities of CSDP, please visit our website, To post a comment, click the "speech bubble."

  — Larry M. Bartels, Director

Recent Entries

  • What the 2008 Election Meant: Politics and Governance

    On Friday, November 14, CSDP and the Brookings Institution co-sponsored the final seminar of the Election 2008 series:PanelistsJohn HarwoodChief Washington Correspondent, CNBC; Political Writer, New York...

  • How Obama Survived the Culture War

    Much of this year’s Republican presidential campaign consisted of a series of blistering attacks portraying the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, as an elitist, a celebrity,...

  • Election Debriefing

    I’ve already seen lots of excellent political science post-mortems on the election. John Sides has had a particularly good series of posts at Monkey Cage attempting to...

  • A Few Questions for the President-Elect

    Two days after Senator Obama’s historic victory, the President-Elect has begun assembling the men and women who will guide his decision-making for the next four...

  • Campaign Effects in the 2008 Election: Money, Ads, and Mobilization

    On Friday, October 31, 2008, CSDP and the Brookings Institution held the fourth of five seminars on this year's election: Campaign Effects in the 2008 Election:...