Before participating in the first presidential debate of the campaign, John McCain dropped a bomb on the political process by announcing unilaterally that he was suspending his campaign activities and canceling his debate participation until he could help fashion a "bailout" agreement. That he ended up doing neither is immaterial; what mattered was the shock and awe his announcement provoked. McCain's week of theatrics was more instructive than anything he or his opponent, Senator Barak Obama, said during the debate itself.
Presidential candidates talk a lot about management experience, but we know from recent presidencies that MBAs and traditional resumes are misleading guides to White House management. The presidency is not a routine executive position. The best available gauge of executive qualifications may be the way the candidates conduct their own campaigns, which are, after all, multimillion-dollar management challenges administered on the fly in full public view. In the hothouse of a presidential campaign, temperament and decision-making style are critical. That's why McCain's pre-debate tactics matter more than his rehearsed responses during the debate itself.
Before the long-scheduled debate, as the economy spiraled downward, there were indications that John McCain was slipping in the polls, and adding to his distress, was doubtless the fact that his vice presidential pick was, he knew, about to embarrass herself on nationwide television in a series of appearances with hand-picked interviewer Katie Couric.
As a career-long free marketeer, McCain had reason to be concerned about the impact of the Wall Street tailspin on his presidential ambitions. He responded, as he has so often in his career, not by a careful recalibration of his economic ideology but by throwing his cards in the air and hoping that the next random reshuffle would give him a better hand. Finally, in apparent frustration, he upended the card table and provoked organizational chaos by announcing he would suspend his campaign and debate participation.
There has been an orderly process in place for 21 years for negotiating debate schedules and formats. The two contenders do so in private, through aides, with the participation of a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates. Arguing economic exigency, John McCain abandoned that established framework (as well as his previous negotiated agreement with the commission).
We know that the reason McCain gave publicly for his attempted debate cancellation made no logical sense. The Republican presidential nominee, who had not participated in Senate deliberations in many moons and had no role whatsoever in the bailout planning, could certainly have spared a few hours on Friday night to fulfill his commitment to the electorate, as proved by his later reversal. But first, he chose melodrama over logic.
One can only guess that he didn't see the debate as advantageous to his campaign, for whatever reason. It could have been that he sensed it came at a time of slippage in public support; it could be that he thought the drama of a unilateral announcement would demonstrate to worried American workers his heartfelt concern for their economic distress; or it could be that his hidden motive was to reschedule the debate to the slot set aside for the vice presidential debate, giving floundering Governor Sarah Palin a reprieve from any more immediate unscripted public scrutiny in her own scheduled debate this week with Democratic counterpart Senator Joe Biden.
Whatever McCain's motivation, his response was to jettison orderly process and hurl his cards in the air, watching from the sidelines as others reacted to his management-by-chaos style. He seemed to hope, somehow, for a better hand than he apparently felt he had to begin with, but his later equally abrupt and unexplained reversal demonstrated that his initial decision was made without consideration of potential adverse reactions.
All this sounds familiar. Remember when McCain was committed to Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate? Told, apparently, that his personal choice would never fly at the Republican convention, the then-presumptive nominee didn't embark on a detailed exploration of other ideologically compatible candidates. Rather, he once again threw his cards in the air, gambling on a woman he'd apparently met or spoken with twice, briefly. Her domestic policies and international experience couldn't have been further from those of the man she replaced in McCain's affections, Lieberman, the veteran pro-choice Democrat-turned-independent. Policy was obviously not the governing reason for McCain's new choice. Nor were findings from his research team, which had done only a cursory vetting of the Alaska governor. McCain's gut instinct was to settle impulsively on Palin, without regard for policy concerns, personal principle or the need for meticulous research.
We've seen this before in his career. Maybe it's an occupational characteristic of the fighter pilot, who drops his payload on a target far below his plane and then makes his escape, hoping that the unpredictable mayhem inflicted on a city or military installation in that quick and dramatic strike will somehow change the dynamic of a campaign that was faring poorly on the ground, day by plodding day. As ground troops slog along, inching their way through brutal, grinding combat toward immediate tactical goals, the flyboys try to change the war's course from high above the battlefield, in a series of brief, explosive flashes.
That's all highly speculative. What isn't speculative is that McCain, faced with unfavorable public responses, has many times previously in his career detonated his policy payload and headed back to base, hoping to find a better result in the rubble. Immigration, tax breaks for the rich, Supreme Court appointment criteria, torture, Confederate flags, right-wing evangelists ... on any number of issues in the past, McCain has not merely compromised with opponents or modified his position but jettisoned all at once years of advocacy and apparently cherished principles to take a diametrically opposite position. These aren't simply "flipflops," they're more like a form of explosive redefinition. Perhaps they also demonstrate a kind of sublimated anger -- the visible signs of McCain's legendary temper. The process certainly bears more resemblance to passive-aggressive behavior than it does to measured policy formulation.
So what does this form of management style bode for a McCain presidency? Congressional relations and international diplomacy both depend on nuance, mutual, laborious and incremental accommodation and trust. Management by chaos works, if it does, by exploding previous trust and established procedure, hoping against hope to come out of an instant of explosive upheaval with a better, if unpredictable outcome when the dust settles. The United States, isolated as it has become these past eight years, would waste still more of its international trust capital and its domestic political bipartisanship -- with dangerous and unknowable consequences -- if Congress and foreign governments were treated by John McCain the way the American public, the Commission on Presidential Debates and Barack Obama were last week.
We have witnessed a dynamite lesson in the management style John McCain hopes to take to the White House.