The Gambler, Part II

It was Kenny Rogers who sang, “You have to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em.” Last week, I described some of John McCain’s moves throughout his career as those of a gambler. The choice of Sarah Palin ranks as one of those audacious and risky moves—and it has paid off to the extent that McCain has successfully re-energized the Republican base. The Palin effect may be subsiding but, without her, McCain would likely have been in a more difficult position. We saw the gambler’s instinct emerging again yesterday when he suspended his campaign and requested a postponement of the first candidates’ debate. The gambler is normally one who calculates his risks and acts in a strategic manner to increase his gain and reduce his losses. Instinct is important to the gambler, but knowledge of the game is absolutely essential. Is McCain really gambling in this case, or is he just being tactical, impulsive, and, to some degree, desperate?

The joint statement by both candidates was a laudable initiative under the present circumstances. Listening to George W. Bush’s address last night, in which he used words like “panic,” “deep recession,” “high unemployment,” “dangerous state,” was probably enough to send ordinary citizens running to the nearest ATM. When you consider how his statements over the past year have been consistently reassuring and optimistic, and add in McCain’s recent claim that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong,” you have to wonder whether these guys know what they are talking about or whether they are just improvising. Apparently, only a bipartisan effort can extricate America from the verge of financial collapse—at least, that’s what we are told. McCain has offered to step away from the campaign to register his vote in favor the bailout plan, but whether America’s democratic process is best served by avoiding an open debate on issues affecting the future of the country remains to be seen. Obama’s point that a president must be able to deal with more than one issue at a time is a legitimate one. Both Obama and McCain can always dictate their wishes to their respective party leaders and find an appropriate moment over the weekend to register their vote.

It seems that McCain’s maverick qualities, which have endeared him to so many electors in the past, may now be doing him a disservice. He does not appear to have the steady hand required nor the depth of knowledge expected, and his performance over the last two weeks reinforces that perception. Is he avoiding the debate tomorrow night because he really believes he can make a difference on the floor of the Senate? Or is he trying to avoid a debate at a time when Republicans are clearly on the defensive and he faces the embarrassing revelation that his campaign manager, Rick Davis, owns a firm that was lobbying on behalf of Freddie Mac? (McCain might also be reluctant to explain how fired Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina—she of the $45 million golden parachute—is now a principal advisor to him on economic matters, serving alongside Washington’s main deregulator, Phil Gramm, who ran for President in 1996 with McCain serving as his campaign chairman.)

It appears that McCain’s move to suspend his campaign says more about his temperament than it does about the gravity of the crisis. McCain has courage in spades, there is no doubt. But temperament and judgment are what is needed in times of crises. Earlier this week, respected conservative columnist George Will expressed his concerns about the McCain temperament. Yesterday, we were treated to an illustration of it—and it was far from reassuring.