Worst self-inflicted campaign move ever?

Candidates have made a lot of unforced errors over the years. Richard Nixon promising to campaign in all 50 states when running against John Kennedy in 1960 -- and getting sick, tired, and cadaver-looking as a result. Nixon again thinking he had to get those crucial Democratic National Committee records from the Watergate building in 1972. (He obviously made it through the election, but then....) Dukakis getting into the tank in 1988.

But compared with John McCain "suspending" his campaign and trying to postpone the debates? Puh-leeze. None of the reasons below is original, but it's worth adding them up to see how risky McCain's proposal is, in giving people impressions he doesn't want to convey.

  • The senator with (understandably) one of the lowest actual-attendance rates at the Capitol in the last two years, and who has played little role in crafting legislation recently, suddenly needs to be nowhere but Washington -- exactly now?

  • The candidate whose strongest claim to office is his experience, mastery, and understanding of foreign policy, cannot handle a debate on that topic, against a rookie, when he has other things on his mind?

  • The candidate who wants to quash any suspicion that he is not quick enough, not vigorous enough, or not multi-tasking enough to handle a job that poses a new challenge every minute, is essentially asking for everyone to take things a little slower so he can concentrate?

  • The candidate whose first response to the financial crisis was to propose firing the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and whose second response was to run ads linking his opponent (hazily) to former Fannie Mae officials (before news came out that his own campaign manager was still on the Freddie Mac payroll), now wants us to believe that statesmanship and love of country govern his every move on this issue?

  • The most famously stoic candidate of recent times is willing to have it look as if he's running away from a confrontation while he's behind.

Now, maybe I am misjudging my fellow citizens. Maybe most people will say: Yes, it's perfectly understandable that John McCain, having traveled constantly for years on the campaign trail, suddenly can't make it down to Mississippi on Friday.  We respect him all the more! But I don't think this is some mass-vs-elite type question. This involves basic "dog ate my homework" appearances that anyone can understand.

To my taste, the strongest moment in John McCain's long debating history happened more than eight years ago, when he took on George W. Bush in South Carolina. McCain was furious at Bush for the underhanded campaign ads the Bush-Rove campaign had run against him in the South.  He excoriated Bush (description of the whole scene after the jump) and, with acid in his voice, said "You should be ashamed."

If that John McCain were still around, I can guess what he would think about the man now campaigning under his previously-good name.

From my July 2004 Atlantic article, "When George Meets John":

On February 15, four days before the [South Carolina] vote, Bush and McCain appeared together on Larry King Live (along with Alan Keyes, the motormouth former ambassador, who was still in the race). Beneath a smile, McCain was seething. Two weeks earlier he had pulled off a surprising victory over the much better financed Bush in New Hampshire. Bush had responded in South Carolina by attacking McCain mercilessly from the right. On Larry King, Bush and McCain traded complaints about unfair negative campaign ads. Bush's complaint was that McCain had run an ad comparing him to Bill Clinton. "That's about as low a blow as you can give in a Republican primary!" he said.

McCain held a tight smile. "Let me tell you what really went over the line," he said shortly afterward, when asked by King for a reply. At a recent Bush rally Bush had stood alongside someone McCain called "a spokesman for a fringe veterans' group," who had denounced McCain for "abandoning" Vietnam veterans.

With feigned politeness, McCain told Bush, "I don't know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts. It really hurts." No mention of McCain's service as a military pilot, nor of his imprisonment and torture in the "Hanoi Hilton"; everyone knew what McCain meant. McCain turned to King. "And so five United States senators--Vietnam veterans, heroes, some of them really incredible heroes--wrote George a letter and said, 'Apologize.' You should be ashamed."

Bush sputtered, "Let me speak to that ..."

McCain faced him again, calm but contemptuous: "You should be ashamed."

It went on for minutes. Bush protested McCain's underhanded tricks--why, one of McCain's supporters, the former senator Warren Rudman, had said that the Christian Coalition included "bigots." Of McCain's military heroism Bush lamely said, "I'm proud of your record, just like you are," and conceded--in an "okay, are you happy now?" tone--that McCain had "served his country well" and had not abandoned veterans. But he was still unhappy himself: "You can disagree with me on issues, John, but do not question--do not question my trustworthiness, and do not compare me to Bill Clinton." It was Bush's worst onstage moment in the 2000 [primary] campaign.