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A Presidential McCain

McCain's bold move could reframe the election--and win it.

12:00 AM, Sep 25, 2008 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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THERE'S A REASON voters in presidential races tend to shy away from electing senators. The primary skills of a legislator--talking, compromising, "representing"--are different from those of an executive--deciding, choosing, "executing." There are individuals who have the ability both to deliberate patiently and act energetically--but it's a rare combination. The best legislators tend not to be great executives, and vice-versa.

This year, for the first time in U.S. history, both major party nominees for president are sitting senators. The winner may be the one who can convince some portion of the electorate that he's less "senatorial," and more "presidential," than the other.

That's why McCain's action Wednesday--announcing he would come back to Washington to try to broker a deal to save our financial system--could prove so important. The rescue package that was so poorly crafted and defended by the Bush administration seemed to be sliding toward defeat. The presidential candidates were on the sidelines, carping and opining and commenting. But one of them, John McCain, intervened suddenly and boldly, taking a risk in order to change the situation, and to rearrange the landscape.

Of course his motives were partly election-related. But "the interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place." If candidate McCain, for whatever mixed motives, ends up acting in a way that results in a deal that is viewed as better than the original proposal, and that seems to stabilize the markets and avert a meltdown--he'll benefit politically, and he deserves to. For McCain will have acted presidentially in the campaign--which some voters, quite reasonably, will think speaks to his qualifications to be president.

As for the question of Friday night's debate, which some in the media seem to think more important than saving the financial system--if the negotiations are still going on in D.C., McCain should offer to send Palin to debate Obama! Or he can take a break from the meetings, fly down at the last minute himself, and turn a boring foreign policy debate, in which he and Obama would repeat well-rehearsed arguments, into a discussion about leadership and decisiveness. And if the negotiations are clearly on a path to success, then McCain can say he can now afford to leave D.C., fly down, and the debate would become a victory lap for McCain.

So the action of these few days becomes more important than the talk of that hour and a half Friday night. One could even say the contrast between the two men in action becomes the true debate over who should be president. The media, being talkers and debaters, love debates, overestimate their importance, and are underestimating the possible effect of McCain's dramatic action. In the debate itself, McCain should mock the media's greater concern for gabbing than solving our economic problems, and should associate Obama with such a talk-heavy media-type approach to politics. If the race is between an energetic executive and an indecisive talker, the energetic executive should win.

William Kristol is editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.