John McCain: Got Debate?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In recent days, a number of concerned citizens belonging to an incredibly distinguished organization have petitioned Ben and Jerryís to follow the example set by a Swiss restaurant and substitute human breast milk for at least a large portion of the cowís milk used in their tasty products. Without question, finding a way to treat dairy cows more humanely is an admirable aim, even for those conspiracy theorists that think the ‘milk lobby’ is out to get us all (be afraid). Apart from the fact that human breast milk tastes awful past the age of two (trust us), however, a 1984-like vision of women, probably some of them cloned, in 3rd world milk factories being impregnated and milked does not seem to us to be all that appealing. To take such an action rashly—even with the best intentions residing in oneís breast—could be short-sighted and slightly hubristic, and leaves the proposal itself seeming more like a ploy than anything else.

And then, thereís John McCain: is he following the example of those PETA people and taking actions in the name of honor and justice that could prove to be short-sighted and inappropriately motivated? For certainly Senator McCainís proclaimed ends in refusing to attend the first Presidential Debate of the 2008 election season are good, if not convincingly genuine. Our country is currently facing what may turn out to be the worst economic disaster in its short history, and surely in recent memory. Unemployment could get out of control quickly, and if we do not get a handle on the state of the dollar, our whole economic system will be owned by countries across the seas. Our national debt has never been higher. This is some intensely scary stuff—even worse than the all-seeing milk lobby—and it is certain that we need the leadership in Washington, D.C. to navigate us through choppy waters deftly and without fear.

In steps good old Senator McCain, the presidential nominee who proposes, in his words, in his deeds, and in the narrative that has defined his political life, to restore some semblance of honor to our country. In the face of a great economic crisis, and in the midst of a close presidential race, he chooses to focus on the former until Congress can find some way to dig us out of our financial abyss.

Both criticism and praise have immediately followed the Republican’s proclamation of absence and, not surprisingly, has been stratified strictly along party lines. Want to know what somebody thinks about the Arizona senator’s move? If you know whether they favor blue or red, the answer seems pretty obvious. We wonder if the reaction would have been the same had Senator Obama been the originator of the patriotic plan. It certainly would not have been as suspicious. The Democratic candidate still leads the polls (with his lead growing) and his VP nominee is expected by many to handle Sarah Palin quite well in the upcoming debate. Surely, Senator Obama would have no political motivation for such a bold course of action.

Senator McCain is on the exact opposite end of the stick: he’s slipping in the polls, his exciting and gutsy VP choice is appearing disappointingly more dubious as the days pass, and his campaign is losing momentum. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way for McCain to make headlines than to set another precedent: no candidate has ever refused attendance at a first presidential debate because of a national crisis.

The move is a risky one that stands to define John McCain in one of two different possible ways: John McCain the unparalleled patriot or John McCain the petulant politician. Assuming that Candidate McCain’s motivations are genuine (a big assumption), McCain’s identity would rest upon the question of whether the duty of a U.S. Senator or the duty of a major party nominee to be President of the United States is more important in a time of national crisis.

Again, one’s initial reaction to the latter question may well depend upon the color of the lever one plans to pull in November. And if the opposite candidate had made the choice to forgo the first debate, the inverse distribution of opinions would likely occur. Let’s try to put all of that aside for moment and truly explore the question: should a senator devote his full attention to the duties of a senator when the nation is in crisis?

It would be difficult even for the most unrealistically idealistic (we’re all for idealism here, so long as it’s tempered by realism) to deny that the campaigning is both time-demanding and important work. Long gone are the days when a candidate could sit on his front porch and let the people come to him, and how a candidate handles himself or herself on the trail is not the worst indicator of how they would perform in office. Indeed, among the more important parts of the office of the presidency has been setting a national tone and direction — this is surely a large part of why Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan stand so highly in the national imagination — and being the articulator of a vision for an entire party is probably some of the most important work that can be done by anyone who is not wiping sweat from his brow on a regular basis.

Of course, this might invite the question as to just who is doing the governing while the President gets to make speeches, to which the answer quite naturally comes back: the great American bureaucracy. And, well, yes, the Congress. However, the voting, deal-making, and deliberating that Senator McCain is doing while not formally campaigning is not quite at the crux of this issue. It seems impossible for it to be said that either senator would be campaigning responsibly, purely from a political theater point of view, by not working to find economic solutions to our current predicament, and it would be irresponsible to avoid the issue on many other levels. Craven avoidance is not at all a viable option; this is one case where membership in the Senate should be a true asset to a presidential candidate. If you have nothing to say on an issue of this magnitude, you shouldnít be allowed anywhere near a podium.

It then remains to be seen whether McCain’s move was a stunt or not, and it is not a question we presume to be able to answer from where we stand; the motivations of our political leaders are opaque at best. So we leave it to you to decide. For you cynics, surely John McCain is slimiest of politicians, running from a debate he knows he wonít win. For you naive of heart, John McCain must be the most honorable statesman since Cincinnatus, bravely putting aside political ambitions for the good of his compatriots. For us, the answer can only be known by two: God and John McCain.