Will McCain's gamble pay off?

John McCain has taken a risk by suspending his campaign to work on a bailout plan, but there's some reason to believe it was a good political move.

Published September 24, 2008 11:43PM (EDT)

Over at her blog, Joan Walsh argues that John McCain's decision to suspend his campaign was a bad one, and says the Republican nominee "will regret it." I'm not quite so sure.

Joan and I were discussing this earlier Wednesday, and as I said to her then, I do think there's some real reason to think this won't turn out well for McCain. She's right, for example, when she says, "I actually think a foreign-policy debate was the only hope McCain had for taking back momentum after a week in which his lifelong devotion to corporate deregulation caught up with him, despite his lying about it." (It's also true, however, as Joan also said, that Obama likely wouldn't let McCain restrict the debate to foreign policy and would bring in economic issues. And given the current economic situation, it's likely the debate moderators would let Obama do that.)

And I'm actually less inclined to believe that this move will help McCain than I was when it was first announced. It's being seen, in all quarters, as a pretty nakedly political move. Even the National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote, "Obama sounds reasonable and less gimmicky than McCain." And a panel led by Fox News' Brit Hume was similarly skeptical; watching Charles Krauthammer praise Obama's response was a little surreal.

Still, I don't think Democrats should be counting their chickens here just yet. This gamble looks a lot like the one McCain made by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, and it looks like it could have similar advantages. First, it allows him to take back the spotlight, and the news cycle, at a time when he was not doing well. Second, it allows him to get back to his preferred message of bipartisanship and "Country First," and to portray Obama as being more concerned with his campaign than he is about the economy. And it could make him look presidential.

Now, all of that won't be any help to him if the public at large becomes -- and remains -- convinced that this was a political ploy, and so far the Democrats are doing a good job of pushing back and making that case. Still, I think you can argue that this is the type of play McCain needed to make, even at the risk of failure. Right now, because of the economic crisis, the campaign is being fought on Obama's turf, the same way it was before the Palin pick. If McCain doesn't bring the narrative to a friendlier place, he's in deep trouble, serious enough that it seems like he has to take this kind of risk.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.