Is John McCain afraid to debate?
September 25, 2008 | 8:25 AMRyan Enos
Is John McCain afraid to debate?
Yes, in a manner of speaking.
Well, okay, since it's John McCain, I'll call it a strategic redeployment. McCain has a very good reason for trying to avoid the upcoming debate.
John McCain has a problem, he does not want to talk about what everyone else wants to talk about. He desperately needs to change the subject. Friday's debate is supposed to be about foreign policy. But I'll bet my fabulous graduate student salary that the economy is going to come up.
A bad economy hurts the party incumbent in the White House. There is overwhelming evidence in political science for this and smart politicians know it too. This has nothing to do with whose fault a bad economy might be. It has nothing to do with McCain in particular. Voters just reward the incumbent party for a good economy and punish the incumbent party for a bad economy. That is one reason that McCain has been so quickly running away from his party. But he can't stop being a Republican and assuming McCain will not single-handedly turn the economy around by some extraordinary legislative feat, what can he do to keep the economy from hurting him? He has to change the subject.
In an excellent forthcoming book, Lynn Vavreck, who also blogs here, demonstrates that it is not only the state of the economy that matters to Presidential candidates, but whether candidates talk about it. Voters reward incumbents for a good economy and punish them for a bad economy, so a successful politician should have a pretty straightforward strategy. If the economy is good, the incumbent party wants to talk about the economy, the challenger wants to talk about anything else. If the economy is bad, the roles are reversed, the challenger talks about the economy and the incumbent tries to talk about anything else.
Vavreck demonstrates that whether or not presidential candidates follow this simple formula can explain a lot about who wins or loses every four years. Candidates that are hurt by the economy, incumbents during a bad economy and challengers during a good economy, need to put voters minds on something else. In a sense, they need to create a distraction. Of course, not all politicians are equally successful at creating this distraction. The distraction for George H.W. Bush, during the recession year campaign of 1992 was 'Family Values'. Unfortunately for him, Bill Clinton's campaign came up with the simple, yet catch slogan of 'It's the economy stupid'. In 2000, facing Al Gore running in the incumbent party during a strong economy, George W. Bush successfully changed the topic to remind people of the scandal and partisan rancor of the Clinton years.
So, McCain wants to talk about anything but the economy. The natural conversation changer for McCain is to talk about foreign policy. This is a subject on which voters trust Republicans generally and him particularly. A debate about foreign policy was, of course, an excellent opportunity to make voters pay attention to something other than the economy. McCain wanted this debate - foreign policy is his home court. Unfortunately for McCain, that darn near collapse of global financial markets is getting in his way. When the current President comes on in prime-time to warn of a 'serious financial crisis', it is hard to get voters to concentrate on anything else. If voters were not worried about the economy before, now that Dancing with the Stars has been interrupted, everybody is paying attention.
During a debate that is supposed to be about foreign policy, if Obama talks about the economy, McCain will look out of touch if he tries to move the debate away from that topic. So, McCain, the experienced strategist that he is, is not running away, he is choosing to fight when the conditions are more in his favor.
Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs and professor of political science.
Professor of education, law, political science and urban plannning.
Professor of urban planning, social welfare, and Asian American studies.
Professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.
Professor of public policy.
Associate professor of public policy.
Associate professor of political science and director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.
Assistant professor-in-residence of medicine.
Assistant professor of political science.
Assistant professor of communication studies.
Ph.D. candidate in political science.
Graduate student in political science.