Friday 26 September 2008

'Matchsticks' McCain

The suspension of a campaign is the continuation of politics by other means.

John McCain is back on his 'Country First' campaign slogan, after the highly political, partisan and polls-focused selection of his running mate. And so tonight's candidates' debate remains in doubt, though Obama's analysis that public scrutiny of the would-be Presidents is more important than ever makes sense.

Joe Klein has an incisive analysis on Time's Swampland blog of the Washington talks, particularly on Republican doubts and divisions over a Wall Street bail out, which are a combination of small government ideology and possible political opportunism.

The suspension move fits with McCain's character - both his integrity and his impulsiveness - but it also strongly suggests that he believes he is very much the underdog now that the focus is back on the economy, and so is taking risks that might change the game.

Tonight's debate theme would be on McCain's core territory of security and foreign policy. McCain wants to be Commander-in-Chief. Yet that is only part of the Presidency. And he has been pretty clear about the weakness of his grasp of economic policy.

In this, McCain rather resembles the long-forgotten former British Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who succeeded Harold Macmillan in 1963. Home was a man of integrity and experience in foreign affairs. But he knew little about domestic policy, and especially not economics, and could never escape his admission that he worked out difficult economic problems with matchsticks

Peter Hennessy reports, in his book The Prime Minister, that Home later told him of how this arose from an Observer interview before he emerged as a surprise candidate for the Premiership.

It was a purely chance remark at lunch because Kenneth Harris said to me "Do you think you could be Prime Minister? And I said, "I really don't think so because I have to do my economics with matchsticks." But it stuck, of course ... Harold Wilson wasn't going to miss something like that [another chuckle]"

The 1964 British election campaign - dominated by young opposition leader Harold Wilson - who had a Kennedyesque appeal at that stage of his career, representing a new generation of socially mobile Brits - dominated the political agenda.

Yet the election was still a knife-edge affair, with Labour squeezing home with a majority of 4.

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