McCain Should Debate

Senator John McCain says the financial crisis requires the candidates for president to “put country first” and postpone their debate, scheduled for tonight in Oxford, Mississippi. He’s wrong.

Putting country first means sharing your vision for America’s future with voters. What direction do you want to take this country? How do you see America’s place in the world? And if that’s not where we’re at now, how do we get there?

Putting country first is explaining how America should behave on the world stage. What should our priorities be? How should we work with allies? With foes?

Putting country first means explaining in clear, simple and concise language how the current economic crisis impacts our national security and what you intend to do about it. If you could lead your party, what would your solution to the economic crisis look like? Will your fellow Republicans in Congress follow you? If not, what do you do?

Putting country first means explaining why your running mate, Governor Sarah Palin, is qualified to step into your shoes and lead the free world on Day Two.  Putting your country first, and your campaign second, is answering that question without once pivoting to attack your opponent, Senator Barack Obama. The selection of the vice presidential nominee is a test of the presidential candidate’s judgement — and it’s not graded on a curve. You either believe Governor Palin has national policy bona fides or she doesn’t. Putting country first is answering with a simple yes or no, and then explaining the reasons for your answer. If you don’t believe your vice president needs to be fully qualified to be president on Day Two, then explain why you think the risks that creates if something happens to you is justified.

Putting country first means explaining what he would do concerning Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, Iran, Darfur, and on-and-on. Specifics would be nice. Putting country first is articulating a coherent philosophy, strategy, approach or doctrine that places your plans for handling these hot spots into a coherent, consistent context. 

Putting country first is about having a debate that is substantive, devoid of pre-packaged sound bite-sized attacks on your opponent or digressions into meaningless debate over inconsequential distractions like porcine make-up. Putting your country first is talking straight with the American people.

Of course, what’s required of Senator McCain is required of Senator Obama, too. Senator Obama should be required to answer these questions, along with addressing the experience gap between he and Senator McCain. If Senator Joe Biden is qualified to be president, in large part because of his experience on foreign policy, doesn’t that make Senator McCain qualified, too?

I understand the politics of what Senator McCain is doing. Hiding in Washington DC stirring up the already fragile politics surrounding the crafting of the government’s response to the economic crisis is a good way to overcome campaign challenges. That this tactic insults President George Bush by implying his administration is incapable of solving the problem without Senator McCain’s help is immaterial. It creates the impression Senator McCain is a hands-on, above-politics leader. That it interferes with negotiations among those members of Congress who matter is besides the point.

What’s ironic about all this is that Senator McCain has never been a leader on economic issues. If the crisis involved responding to another Russian intrusion into Georgia, having Senator McCain might be useful. He’s a proven record and substantial experience on those kinds of issues. But when it comes to helping resolve the mess in the nation’s securities, banking and financial markets he has been, and remains, a back-bencher.

Senator McCain’s Washington, D.C. photo opportunity is all about rebooting a campaign that had been floundering in the face of the meltdown on Wall Street. It’s a savvy move politically, and it might work. When my computer has a problem, the first thing I do is reboot it which often solves the problem.

But running for president isn’t the same as maintaining a PC. It’s about demonstrating the judgement and temperment required to lead the United States of America. It’s about leading the free world. One test of putting country first means forgoing what is politically savvy to what’s in the national interest. By undermining tonight’s debate and interfering with problem solving in Washington, Senator McCain fails that test.

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