Saturday, October 4, 2008

A risky but necessary debate gambit for McCain

John MccCain is down to his final option, and it looks as if he'll play it: going after Barack Obama's character. Sarah Palin will not close the gap between McCain and his Democratic opponent. The Sarah Palin Show enthuses the disheartened GOP base, and is wonderful media theater, but it doesn't do much for McCain among the undecideds, who, as they shrink, are choosing Obama more often. McCain's millstone is the economic crisis, which will hang from his neck, and his party's, for the rest of the campaign.

But McCain might still win with an attack on Obama's Achilles' heel -- his character. His attack must be as daring as it is forceful. The place to launch it is the presidential debate Tuesday night. McCain should go through his usual campaign tropes for the first 75 minutes, winning a point here, losing a point there. Then, with maybe 15 minutes to go, he should simply abandon the debate format, and announce that it's time for the candidates -- he and Obama -- to put aside their campaign props and talk to the American people about who they are. That's what happened in the fateful election of 1860, when Lincoln ran against Northern Democrat Douglas, who had defeated him in the senatorial race two years earlier. This time Lincoln was "Honest Abe" and "the Railsplitter" -- nicknames which, for all their placard spin, spoke to character.

Let McCain arbitrarily begin the 75th moment of the debate talking about character, starting with himself. He can and should acknowledge, with mortifying examples, his streaks of tempestuousness and righteousness. Then he can talk about what he and his supporters see as the larger side of his character -- the courage, steadfastness and faith in God, country, comrades and family that sustained him for five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton. He should also cite -- thankfully, not pridefully -- his willingness to conciliate, which made him a leader in America's rapprochement with Vietnam. Finally he can talk about his maverick spirit that has sometimes earned him enemies within his own party.

Finally he should turn to Obama, and invite him to do the same. If Obama demurs, or moderator Tom Brokaw says, "Let's move on to the next question," McCain should say, no, the American people need to see their presidential candidates put a mirror to their characters. The candidates have given scores, hundreds, of speeches, with pre-packaged sound bites. Just this one time -- with maybe a quarter of all Americans in front of their TV -- let them talk revealingly about their inner core, where campaign managers and speechwriters can't reach.

If Obama choose to do so, fine -- voters can decide who they want to trust running America in such a parlous period. Maybe the young and smart Democrat will, on the fly, provide the most important chapter to his hitherto selective biography. But if he still demurs, and Brokaw still tries to get to the next unimportant debate question, McCain should stop the proceedings in its tracks, and ask his opponent about Jeremiah Wright -- even though, months ago, McCain said any more criticism of the Obama-Wright connection was off-limits. How could it be, McCain should ask, that Obama could sit in the pew of Trinity United Church of Christ for 20 years and not have heard his pastor utter any of his racist rants, his denunciations of the middle class, his repudiation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of reconciliation? If Obama couldn't cope with Jeremiah Wright, how could he deal with Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez?

There would be a big risk in McCain trying to derail Tuesday night's debate. If he allowed himself to become self-righteous -- as he has too many times during the campaign -- he could end up a big loser. But in this time of major economic crisis and when this country is engaged in three wars (against terror and in Iraq and Aghanistan), Americans might be ready to listen to their presidential candidates talk about the two men behind the political posters.

Postscript: Palin, on a campaign stop Saturday, said Obama, according to a Page One story in the New York Times, "sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country." The Times piece was about William Ayers, a founder of the Weatherman group in the 1960s that plotted bombings against the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and other major targets. Now Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Chicago. The Times piece said Ayers and Obama's "paths have crossed sproadically" since they met at a school reform meeting in 1995, "but the two men do not appear to have been close" since then. It looks as if it would be a stretch to use Ayers as a major reason to question Obama's character. The 20-year Obama-Rev. Wright relationship is a whole other story.

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