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September 25th, 2008 at 2:55 pm

John McCain’s Risky Maneuver: A Post from Alan Schroeder

The following is a post by Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV:

The gambit by John McCain to postpone Friday night’s opening debate at Ole Miss entails considerable risk to the candidate. History shows that the public disapproves of presidential contenders who appear to be shirking a campaign exercise now regarded as obligatory.

Since the dawn of televised presidential debates in 1960, candidates have regularly sought to avoid taking part, or to whittle down the number and length of matches.  Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 wanted nothing to do with TV debates, and in those election cycles no joint appearances took place.  Jimmy Carter sat out a 1980 debate against opponents Ronald Reagan and John Anderson. Incumbents Reagan and Clinton, in 1984 and 1996 respectively, agreed to only two meetings with their challengers, as opposed to the traditional three.

On occasion, scheduled debates have been canceled.  George H.W. Bush declined to participate in the first two match-ups of 1988, causing both to collapse at the last minute.  Four years later, Bush’s avoidance of the first scheduled debate sparked the “Chicken George” phenomenon, a classic illustration of the dangers of candidate ambivalence.  At the debate site in East Lansing, Michigan, a costumed protester showed up in a poultry outfit, toting a sign that said “Chicken George is afraid to debate.”  Soon an entire flock of pseudo-chickens began turning up at Bush campaign events around the country, so enraging the candidate that he got into an on-camera argument with one of them.  Ultimately Bush was left with little choice but to debate.

McCain’s threat differs in that it marks the first time a candidate has balked after signing a debate agreement with his opponents; all the previous incidents occurred before the campaigns had finalized their debate talks.  Back on August 21, 2008, negotiators for McCain and Obama issued a joint statement outlining their commitment to a series of one vice presidential and three presidential debates on four specific dates.  In that statement the campaigns could not resist patting themselves on the back for having reached such an uncharacteristically early resolution.

So why would McCain tamper with a debate roster that he agreed to?  If we take the Senator at his word, the call for postponement involves a purely altruistic motivation.  Skeptics argue that McCain is attempting either to buy himself additional time to prepare or duck the event altogether.  Some see a cynical plot to delay or even cancel the vice presidential debate, a theory fueled by Republican debate negotiator Lindsay Graham’s suggestion that McCain and Obama meet on October 2 in lieu of Palin and Biden.

As the McCain camp knows, reconfiguring the debate calendar this late in the game is virtually impossible.  Plans at Ole Miss have been underway for nearly a year, and the university has spent an estimated $5.5 million dollars preparing for its moment in the sun.  The other host communities on the debate schedule have made similar commitments of money and community effort.  And TV networks and media personnel must resolve mind-numbingly complex issues of logistics and technology before a debate can be staged and covered.

Bold though it may be, McCain’s move could backfire politically by rendering the candidate hysterical and overly reactive—a case of Chicken Little, rather than Chicken George.  Already Obama is receiving high marks for maintaining his cool under fire in the midst of the melodrama.  And if McCain ends up going through with the debate as planned, Americans may well wonder why all the fuss was necessary.

The ultimate risk for McCain is that he will be seen as trying to deny voters a campaign ritual to which they feel attached.  As the Nielsen ratings demonstrate, election after election, Americans take their presidential debates very seriously.  After the Super Bowl, presidential debates are typically the most highly watched television programs of the year.

Imagine a scenario in which one team in the Super Bowl announces 48 hours beforehand that it may not show up for the game.  A ploy of this sort would not be favorably received by the fans.  Presidential debates are not entirely analogous, of course, but one wonders: is it ever wise to deprive citizens of a media spectacle they have been looking forward to?

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