Etiology is the study of causation – a word used in medical and philosophical theories where you’re trying to figure out why things occur, or the reasons behind the way that things act the way they act. So doctors – particularly internists, who specialize in diagnosis – throw that word around, as do pipe-smoking philosophers in their tweed jackets, graduate students at their knee, taking notes. Civilians don’t use the word much. It sounds funny – all Greek, which it is, actually.
Still it’s a good word, a word for what we all do. We want to know what causes what, and we want to be clear about what we mean by cause itself – because coincidence can confuse things. That this happened and then that happened may not mean that the one caused the other. There is that whole thing about the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions – you see, that this one thing happened meant something else happened, but it may not be the only factor, making it a necessary, but not a sufficient condition. You cannot say the one caused the other. What you are pointing to was just one of the things that made something possible – it didn’t really cause what happened, all by itself.
People don’t think about such things that much – so you get all sorts of wild conspiracy theories, like Lyndon Johnson had Jack Kennedy murdered, or Dick Cheney was behind the 9/11 attacks, or the Rothschild family and a cabal of international Jewish bankers really rule the world. You take nuggets of verifiable information and build a linear chain of cause and effect – great fun, if you like to alarm yourself with scary stories, but rather silly. Nothing much is linear in this world – the internist will tell you that you didn’t have that heart attack because of your six-cheeseburger-a-day habit. There was more to it, some of it genetic and some having to do with stress and such things – but the cheeseburgers were, really, a bad idea, of course. It’s just that nothing is linear. Nothing is simple.
But we like things simple. There’s a comfort in simple explanations, and we want the just one thing to be the reason for whatever shocks us or makes us uncomfortable – see George Bush and his explanation for all we’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places not discussed much, that folks are out to kill us all because they hate us for our freedoms. If things are a bit more complex than that, few want to hear it – bring up blowback from our actual policies and actions over the long years, or balance of power issues, or the history of religious strife that is obscure to us, and you’ll be shouted down. Yes, things should be made as simple as possible – but not simpler, as Einstein once put it. Of course he was one of those pipe-smoking philosophers in a tweed jacket – not a normal person.
And that brings us to the events of Wednesday, September 24, 2008 – the day John McCain announced he was suspending his presidential campaign, because he had decided it was more important for him to fly back to Washington to break the deadlock in the negotiations over the proposed seven hundred billion dollar mother of all bailouts that, if enacted, would save the nation, and the world, from something worse than the Great Depression – a total meltdown of the world’s financial systems. It was, you see, the responsible thing to do, and only he could do it – and Obama should tag along and help out, if he can.
As for the first presidential debate, to be held two days later, he said that should be put off – until the world had been saved, or at least until the enabling legislation had been passed. His opponent, Barack Obama, said this was just the right time for a debate – in forty days people would vote for the man who would inherit an economy in deep trouble. This was the very time for each of them to explain what they thought, what they might do, how they’d approach problems, and do so publicly, with the projected one hundred million people watching, here and around the world – the time was now, and not later. When it was clear the debate would not be rescheduled, McCain said he might just not show up – unless, of course, the legislation had been passed by then.
This was rather extraordinary. Some called it bold. Some called it a stunt.
For those of you who think in a wholly linear manner, here is your first nugget of verifiable information:
Turmoil in the financial industry and growing pessimism about the economy have altered the shape of the presidential race, giving Democratic nominee Barack Obama the first clear lead of the general-election campaign over Republican John McCain, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll.
… The poll found that, among likely voters, Obama now leads McCain by 52 percent to 43 percent. Two weeks ago, in the days immediately following the Republican National Convention, the race was essentially even, with McCain at 49 percent and Obama at 47 percent.
As a point of comparison, neither of the last two Democratic nominees – John F. Kerry in 2004 or Al Gore in 2000 – recorded support above 50 percent in a pre-election poll by the Post and ABC News.
Keep that in mind as you recall the main stories of the day – 1) Progress Made in Bailout Talks (almost done, with a few details to be hammered out), 2) Bailout Deal Near As Bush to Meet Lawmakers (the president calls big meeting with all parties, and McCain and Obama, to nail this down), 3) President Issues Warning to Americans (in a primetime address to the nation he says this is a big deal, and endorses all the changes the wary wanted in the legislation), 4) ‘Our Entire Economy Is In Danger,’ Bush Warns (well, damn, this is end-of-the-world serious stuff, so as much as he hates the government solving anything, he’ll make an exception for this), 5) First Debate Up in Air as McCain Puts Off Politicking (McCain’s surprise), 6) Obama Rejects McCain Proposal (this is actually the time people should know much more about the two of us, and see us answering the same questions and talking to each other), and 7) Palin May Also Suspend Campaign (no one knows why, as she doesn’t know much about anything and was just giving the same stump speech anyway over and over).
That’s a big news day.
In Slate, John Dickerson adds some perspective on the McCain gambit in Stunt Man, covering what he calls McCain’s “latest crazy, brilliant, desperate campaign tactic.”
John McCain has launched his second Hail Mary pass in a month. On Wednesday he called for a suspension of the presidential campaign – no events, no ads, and no debate Friday – so that he and Barack Obama can head to Washington to forge a bipartisan solution. Even more than his selection of Sarah Palin as running mate, this gambit feels like a wild improvisation someone in the McCain team mapped out on his chest: OK, you run to the fire hydrant, cut left, and then when he gets to the Buick, John, you heave it.
But Dickerson notes it is not at all clear what McCain is going to do in Washington, as, after all, “he doesn’t sit on any of the relevant committees and everyone is already deep in negotiations.” Dickerson doesn’t see the obvious. Maybe McCain will just ooze leadership, and inspire folks. Dickerson says McCain’s move doesn’t make much logical sense, so 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.
Dickerson sees something absurd here:
It’s hard to believe that McCain’s actions would pass his own laugh test. In fact, he’s often snickered at his fellow senators who come in at the eleventh hour to lend a hand after McCain has done the hard work. But the McCain campaign is past caring about how journalists (or colleagues) view his moves. He hopes the rest of the country will see this as a leadership moment.
But of course McCain needed to do something – Dickerson links to the sinking polls, nationally and in the battleground states – and he adds that McCain is “playing on Obama’s turf in his effort to sell himself both as a change agent and as a steward of the economy.” Dickerson runs down the polls where McCain is getting hammered on both issues.
Here’s the linear this-causes-that thinking:
What was a candidate to do in that instance? Issue a press release? Come up with a better 10-point plan? (An 11-point plan?) Chanting “Drill, baby, drill” won’t help. McCain’s argument is that he represents something other than politics as usual, and this gambit certainly isn’t usual. (Though I was reminded of Bob Dole’s effort to shake up his 1996 campaign by stepping down from the Senate. There just aren’t that many things a presidential candidate can do that suggest boldness.)
But both McCain and Obama want voters see them as competent crisis managers – when neither has any experience in such things. Dickerson calls it a charade, one we all accept, but with one key change now:
Perhaps McCain will help us define that line between the charades that voters allow and those they think are ridiculous….
Voters might see it as a transparent political act, or they might just hear “McCain takes bold action in response to crisis.” Obama talks about getting people in a room to forge consensus, but he can’t match McCain’s record – which McCain will happily talk about when people challenge his authenticity. Of course, the big downside for McCain is that he’s now in the thick of a debate on a topic (economics) that he’s not so comfortable with and that voters don’t intrinsically trust him on.
It’s a gamble, and one must not forget the internal nastiness:
In response to McCain, Obama pointed out that he had actually started the bipartisan ball rolling, reaching out to McCain privately earlier in the day to issue a joint statement. McCain then one-upped him and went public. (Historians of the relationship between the two men will note that their first fracas in 2006 came in a nearly identical situation, though the roles were reversed: McCain thought he was working out a private deal with Obama over lobbying reform until Obama appeared to outflank him in his public posture. McCain and his staff went ballistic.)
… Obama aides also argued that McCain was not only being transparently political but reckless. Imagine what that recklessness would be like if McCain were in the Oval Office, they say. On Wednesday Joe Biden had already given a speech framing McCain as risky and dangerous as commander-in-chief in the hopes of planting that story line before the first debate.
Dickerson says just expect more of this sort of thing from McCain:
The beneficial effects of the Palin Hail Mary lasted only a few weeks, and another adrenaline injection was needed. If this one doesn’t work, that’s OK—in due time they can try another razzle-dazzle play. And if it does work, that’s great – in due time they can still try another razzle-dazzle play. It all makes the prospect of a McCain White House very exciting. So exciting, he might want to schedule periodic suspensions of his presidency to get anything done.
Of it all, Barney Frank had the best line – “It’s the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys.”
But the argument is that this is no time for politics. But Marc Ambinder argues this is the time politics matter the most, not the least:
When the philosophical differences that each party organizes around are put to the test of reality. When conflict builds consensus. When the public craves answers and debate from their politicians. When the stakes of the presidential election could not be more acute.
Comparative advantage: the best thing the presidential candidates can do now is to practice their politics honestly, not to abandon politics altogether – itself, of course, a political move. Suspending your campaign basically says: all that over the past sixteen months? It wasn’t important. Ignore what I said or did. Too late.
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.
On that, see Josh Marshall:
Bringing the presidential candidates and their press entourages back to Capitol Hill won’t speed or improve the process of coming up with a good bailout deal. It will politicize it. That’s so transparently obvious that it barely requires stating. And of course that is the point.
By going public with his “suspension” announcement as a breaking news statement McCain intended to make any agreement between the candidates impossible. Contrast that with Obama’s campaign, which apparently tried to get both campaigns to agree on a common set of principles privately before going public. There’s no logical reason there can’t be a presidential debate while a bailout plan is being negotiated.
Or see Mickey Kaus with McCain: Drama Queen:
Drama Queen: No convention today! … Ok, it’s on! … The economy’s sound… No, wait, it’s going to fall apart unless I go to Washington tomorrow! … We need a commission! … We need to fire somebody! … Get me Andrew Cuomo! … I want ten more debates! … But let’s postpone the one we’ve scheduled! … Do you get the impression a McCain presidency would be a bit exhausting? …
P.S.: Remember Tom Wolfe’s description of a fighter pilot’s decision-making protocol: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! …”
It seems unlikely that McCain has now won the election – blowing Obama out of the water by showing Obama to be a useless, partisan twit – all ambition with no sense of duty to country. No one is buying it.
And there is Steve Benen with this:
We’re starting to get a better sense of what the McCain campaign’s “suspension” means in a practical sense. CNN, citing senior campaign adviser Mark Salter, reports that the Republican nominee “will suspend airing all ads and all campaign events pending an agreement with Obama, though Salter did not know whether John McCain will suspend fundraising activities. He added that McCain would take part in the debate as scheduled if Congress reached agreement on the measure by Friday morning.” …
And if I understand the rationale, McCain believes the crisis is so important, it’s worth focusing all of his attention on it – at least between Friday and Tuesday – and nothing else.
Benen says this is ridiculous:
First, the crisis isn’t new, and McCain didn’t reach this conclusion until his poll numbers started falling. Would McCain have made this absurd decision if the polls showed him with momentum? Of course not.
Second, lawmakers and administration officials have been on the case for a while; it’s not like McCain has anything specific to contribute to the discussion. Indeed, if two candidates, their respective teams, the Secret Service, and a media circus went to the Hill on Friday, the chances of progress on a legislative package go down, not up.
But even more importantly, McCain is subtly telling voters that he’s not especially good at multitasking. As [Matthew] Yglesias put it, “I think walking and chewing gum at the same time is part of the president’s job.”
It’s certainly supposed to be. We’ve had campaigns, debates, ads, speeches, and fundraisers during wars and natural disasters, but we’ve never had a candidate who didn’t think he could handle campaigning during a crisis before.
McCain, in other words, apparently wants to call a time-out. I don’t blame him, necessarily, but here’s the thing: presidents don’t get to call time-outs. They don’t get to put some responsibilities on hold while they tend to other responsibilities. They need to be resilient, and put their duties ahead of the distractions and fatigue.
McCain, for lack of a better word, appears terrified this afternoon – terrified of losing, terrified of the race slipping away, terrified of a debate, terrified of events unfolding beyond his control.
And so, scared, he panicked, and made yet another rash and cynical decision.
John McCain is fundamentally unsuited for the presidency. Why he seems so anxious to remind us of this fact is a mystery.
Eric Rauchway offers historical perspective with a bit of this-day-in-history research:
September 24, 1864: The nation is literally at risk of collapse, engaged in a large-scale civil war: “Yet the campaign for the presidency was ‘now being prosecuted with the utmost vigor,’ as one could read in the New York Times.”
September 24, 1932: The nation is mired in Depression, coping with it a full time job, “Yet Herbert Hoover prepared to give a large speech in Iowa and Franklin Roosevelt had just given what became a famous address to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.”
September 24, 1944: World War II well under way, with the United States engaged in fierce fighting, “Yet President Roosevelt had just officially launched his campaign for a fourth term, while Thomas Dewey took his turn speaking in San Francisco, challenging Roosevelt’s supremacy.”
But John McCain feels he can’t do debate prep and make up his mind about the bailout proposal at the same time. He wants an extension.
Steve Benen also adds perspective:
When the crisis on Wall Street began, and the markets began tanking nine days ago, the very first message from John McCain was, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.” That didn’t work, and McCain dropped the line.
His second message was that he wanted to see a commission investigate how and why the crisis happened. That made McCain appear confused, so he dropped that line, too.
His third message was in opposition to the AIG bailout. That didn’t last, and McCain took the opposite position 24 hours later.
His fourth message was to fire Christopher Cox from the Securities and Exchange Commission. That turned out to be ridiculous, and McCain dropped the line, too.
His fifth message was to blame lobbyists, influence peddlers, and the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That became problematic given the lobbyists and former Fannie/Freddie officials on McCain’s payroll.
Add that up and you get this:
McCain has simply gone from one ridiculous notion to another, flailing around, looking desperately for something coherent to say. Now McCain has come up with yet another stunt: suspend the campaign, delay the debate, and head back to his day job for the first time since April.
It’s hard to imagine anyone being so gullible as to find McCain’s gimmick credible. Candidates who take the political process seriously don’t behave this way. Leaders don’t behave this way.
And Benen recommends Josh Marshall here – “Isn’t this the campaign equivalent of faking an injury when you’re down late in the 4th quarter?”
And there is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying the obvious, that there’s already a process in place to continue negotiations, and 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. If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership; not a campaign photo op.”
And, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the details of rising above politics are just curious:
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. 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.
And right away the McCain campaign, released a statement saying that Obama was just lying:
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 concern 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.
Some think Obama was blindsided. It sort of depends on who you think is lying. No good can come of this.
But maybe people have decided on having the debate as planned:
A majority of Americans say the debate should be held. Just 10% say the debate should be postponed. A sizable percentage of Americans, 36%, think the focus of the debate should be modified to focus more on the economy. 3 of 4 Americans say the presidential campaign should continue. Just 14% say the presidential campaign should be suspended. If Friday’s debate does not take place 46% of Americans say that would be bad for America.
This is not playing out as planned, and even the most rabid on the right, like Kathryn Jean Lopez, was forced to say this – that “Obama sounds reasonable and less gimmicky than McCain” while talking about the debate.
See Jason Zengerle:
That’s how a McCain supporter is reacting to all of this. You do wonder if stunt fatigue is simply setting in. First there was the Palin pick. Then there was the jihad against the Times. At a certain point McCain’s “bold” moves start to seem a little stale and predictable, don’t they?
Kevin Drum adds this:
The McCain campaign is running on fumes at this point. They’ve been all over the map on the financial crisis. Both McCain and Palin are afraid to meet with reporters and answer actual questions. Even their prepared statements barely make sense anymore. They’re completely at sea.
And now this. Obama calls McCain to privately work out a genuinely bipartisan statement about the bailout bill, and McCain immediately panics and runs off to the TV cameras to offer up a faux public one instead (and then leaves without taking questions, of course). A joint statement? Hah! Too puny. I dare Senator Obama to suspend our campaigns, sequester ourselves from the American public, and hold photo ops on Capitol Hill instead! In fact, I double dare him!
Sheesh. It’s time for the Drama King to take his bows and exit stage right. Enough.
And then Matt Drudge leaked what would be coming up on the late night David Letterman show, where McCain was a no-show:
David Letterman tells audience that McCain called him today to tell him he had to rush back to DC to deal with the economy.
Then in the middle of the taping Dave got word that McCain was, in fact just down the street being interviewed by Katie Couric. Dave even cut over to the live video of the interview, and said, “Hey Senator, can I give you a ride home?”
Earlier in the show, Dave kept saying, “You don’t suspend your campaign. This doesn’t smell right. This isn’t the way a tested hero behaves.” And he joked: “I think someone’s putting something in his Metamucil.”
“He can’t run the campaign because the economy is cratering? Fine, put in your second string quarterback, Sara Palin. Where is she?”
“What are you going to do if you’re elected and things get tough? Suspend being president? We’ve got a guy like that now!”
That was inadequate – watch this nine-minute clip from the show – Letterman is devastating. He just about destroys McCain with what everyone knows but didn’t want to say. Letterman may be a secondary hack, past his prime, but this stuff will be all over. It could be over for McCain.
It’s just so puzzling. Why this move? Why now? If you want to consider that, see UCLA’s Mark Kleiman with Random Thoughts on McCain’s Stochastic Move – and a stochastic process is one whose behavior is non-deterministic in that a state does not fully determine its next state. The word here is random – or mad.
Or maybe it is not random or mad, as CNN reports here:
McCain surrogate Sen. Lindsey Graham tells CNN the McCain 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 VP debate, currently scheduled for next Thursday, October 2 in St. Louis.
In this scenario, the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin would be rescheduled for a date yet to be determined, and take place in Oxford, Mississippi, currently slated to be the site of the first presidential faceoff this Friday.
Rescheduled for a date yet to be determined? Now we see what’s going on – but that’s a crazy conspiracy theory.
Does anyone have another explanation?