I didn't want to be too much of a spoilsport last week, but my early read on McCain's disastrous suspension of the campaign last week, and subsequent debate zig-zagging, was much the same as Sean's. McCain dramatically overestimated his ability to control the battle space with a single grand maneuver. It was the starkest example in recent history of a candidate gambling -- and with seemingly no frickin' clue what would happen at that -- and coming up short.
But more than a misjudgment -- hey, those happen all the time in politics -- it surfaced a problem that should have been clear all along: McCain's inability to create a Presidential persona apart from his legislative persona.
Announcing that you're dropping everything, going back to Washington, and singlehandedly forcing a deal is not a Presidential thing to do, but it is a very Senatorial thing to do. Even in crisis, our Presidents have tended to project a calm, above-it-all demeanor that leaves the sausage-making to Congress, even if the behind the scenes reality is always somewhat different.
By injecting himself into the process so directly, and staking his campaign on it and eventually failing, McCain showed an impulsive nature shaped by years as the maverick of the Senate. Unfortunately, McCain misjudged what the people want from their President in a time of crisis. When Americans wanted a steady hand at the helm, McCain's behavior last week seemed not a little erratic. That's not uncommon for Senators who always have to jockey for position -- but unusual for a President.
Throughout the campaign, McCain has rebelled against the animatronic aspects of the Bush presidency by offering to bring Senatorial accessibility and back-and-forth to the White House, most prominently in his proposal to submit to questioning in the well of the House in the manner of a British Prime Minister. That's fine when the sailing is smooth. But the separation of powers sure does come in handy in times of crisis, when Presidents desceding into the Congressional muck may unnecessarily weaken them.
It's no coincidence that the last week has seen an Obama bump. In a time of crisis, Obama has projected a sense of calm and stability. This is not a commentary on his experience. What I am talking about is simple acting. But much of the Presidency is about building confidence through how you act.
McCain thrives on the frenetic energy of mano-a-mano legislative combat. This can be useful in getting things going when they are moving too slow, but when the underlying problem is that things are moving too fast -- with banks failing every other day -- people look for calm, reassurance, and orderly action. And Obama the Hyde Park socialist has done a better job of projecting this inherently conservative function of the President in the last week.