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McCain’s Mistake?

Forty-eight hours after the fact, I’m still not certain exactly what the McCain campaign was trying to accomplish with this whole drama surrounding the “suspension” of his campaign and toying with his idea of dropping the debate. Was it, as I argued yesterday, in fact an effort to increase the impact of the debate? Perhaps. Was it a razzle-dazzle play designed to distract us from Sarah Palin’s poor interview with Katie Couric? I thought that was a ridiculous notion at first, but as more and more of the interview leaks out, I’m not as certain.

What I think McCain also might have done, however, is to confuse slightly different things: a tragedy and a crisis. In a tragedy — say, a terrorist attack, or a Category 5 hurricane hitting a major American city — people expect the political process to be put on hold. That’s not to say there aren’t political implications to such things — decisions to be made, lessons to be learned. But those are the moments where we hope to come together as a country. Imagine if a politican were to run an attack ad during Hurricane Katrina — this would seem completely inappropriate.

The financial tremors on Wall Street, however, were not a tragedy, but a crisis: an ongoing, slowly building, relatively forseeable event, but perhaps one lacking the acutely emotional impact. In that sense, it was more along the lines of global warming than 9/11. And in a crisis, people do not expect the political process to be put on hold. On the contrary, they expect it to go into overdrive to get them the hell out of the crisis.

Now, I’m making a semantic distinction here … returning to Washington to work on the bailout would also be a perfectly approrpiate response to an economic crisis. But something about the timbre of the McCain response was off. They did not merely expect Ameriacns to view McCain’s response as appropriate — they also expected Americans to view it as honorable. But a crisis does not call for honor; it calls for cool-headedness, decisiveness, and hard work. One can argue about whether McCain has in fact demonstrated those things in response to the crisis, but I don’t think that’s what he was aiming for.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.