Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama.
… For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are "corrupt" or "betray the public's trust," two categories that seem to be exhaustive -- there are no other people.
… Conservatives who insist that electing McCain is crucial usually start, and increasingly end, by saying he would make excellent judicial selections. But the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.
It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?
I have previously documented some of McCain’s impulsive and inconsistent reactions to the financial crisis (“defeat evil! end greed!”).
Yesterday, McCain announced that he was “suspending his campaign” (although he continues to run attack ads in key battleground states, his campaign surrogates continue to fill the airwaves, his fundraising operations and campaign offices are all still up and operational, and he spent the day with his campaign manager – so it is not really clear what he has “suspended”). He also proposed that tomorrow’s debate with Obama be postponed so that they could together solve the country’s financial crisis (more on that below). He tried to portray all of this as rising about partisan politics, but it was anything but. By pulling this stunt unilaterally rather than in concert with Obama, McCain was seeking to shift the agenda from a focus on the financial mess created by Republican antipathy to regulation to McCain’s own HEROIC LEADERSHIP in forging a political consensus behind a bailout plan. Bush became an accomplice in McCain’s ploy by inviting him and Obama to the White House today – an offer Obama, of course, couldn’t refuse.
Events began yesterday with Obama calling McCain at 8:30 in the morning to propose that they issue a joint statement on principles for any financial bailout plan. This was done privately so they could work something out and announce it together. Instead, McCain huddled with his advisors and made it … ALL ABOUT HIM (of course). In other words, Obama was attempting to privately orchestrate a bipartisan response, but McCain chose to unilaterally trumpet his own HEROIC LEADERSHIP. McCain is the White Knight who will ride into Washington and personally save the country from economic ruin. All while being “above politics” and “bipartisan”, of course.
The man is a megalomaniac. But there was also a shrewd calculation. McCain’s only hope of winning this election has been to distract from the issues – where voters prefer Obama by overwhelming margins – to a renewed culture war and a “small ball” focus on distractions like sex education and “lipstick on a pig.” (Palin is just one big bundle of distractions and the lightening rod for the culture war. No one serious about governance would even think of putting her in a position to become the most powerful person on the planet.) Apart from attacks on Obama, McCain’s campaign is built entirely on a narrative of his own HEROIC LEADERSHIP.
Of course, McCain cannot contribute substantively to the negotiation of the bailout plan. McCain does not have any particular expertise in economic or financial matters, nor has he ever even shown any particular interest in them. McCain is not on the Senate Finance Committee which, along with the House Financial Services Committee, is negotiating the bailout deal with Treasury secretary Paulson. The chairman of the Senate committee, Chris Dodd, said that he had not heard a peep from McCain all week (while Obama had been in contact with him throughout the week as well as with Paulson and Fed chairman Bernanke).
McCain is also not among the leadership of his own party in Congress. The actual leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, had this to say about McCain’s stunt:
This is a critical time for our country. While I appreciate that both candidates have signaled their willingness to help, Congress and the Administration have a process in place to reach a solution to this unprecedented financial crisis.
I understand that the candidates are putting together a joint statement at Senator Obama’s suggestion. But it would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation’s economy. If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership; not a campaign photo op.
If there were ever a time for both candidates to hold a debate before the American people about this serious challenge, it is now.
The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank (a law school classmate of mine, as it turns out – and one of the smartest and funniest guys you will ever meet), echoed that sentiment:
"All of sudden, now that we are on the verge of making a deal, John McCain here drops himself in to help us make a deal,” Frank said. He expressed fear that McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona who has spent much of the year away from the Capitol campaigning, could end up slowing down work on the bill. The Massachusetts Democrat noted that a meeting on Capitol Hill on Thursday will be interrupted for a "photo op" at the White House with congressional Democrats and Republicans as well as Bush.
"We're trying to rescue the economy, not the McCain campaign," Frank said.
Earlier in the day Frank called McCain’s ploy, "the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys."
There is no small irony in McCain’s panicked return to Washington. For this entire Congress, has been the most absent Senator – by a long margin. He has missed 64% of all Senate votes. (The next most absent, Tim Johnson, who missed 48% of all votes, suffered a severe cerebral hemorrhage that almost took his life but eventually returned to outvote McCain.)
There have been 643 votes taken in the current Senate session: McCain has missed 412 of them. McCain has not voted in the Senate since April 8th. Since March, he has missed 109 of the last 110 votes. He missed votes on the GI Bill, energy policy, and in 2007 he missed "all 15 critical environmental votes in the Senate" -- giving him a 2007 rating of 0% from the League of Conservation Voters. Zero percent? I don't think that's fair. I think they should have given him an "incomplete", and told him that he had to stay for summer session if he wants to graduate from the Senate.
The infamous National Journal ranking that labeled Obama
McCain has apparently had so little interest in the substance of the bailout proposal that as of Tuesday, four days after Paulson sent it up to the Hill, McCain admitted he still hadn’t read it. AND IT IS ONLY TWO AND A HALF PAGES LONG!
As part of his stunt, McCain cancelled an appearance on the Letterman show last night. That was fine. But he made the mistake of lying to Letterman, saying that he couldn’t tape the show because he was “racing to the airport” to return to DC. In fact, during the taping of the Letterman show he was in another studio at CBS being interviewed by Katie Couric. It is not a good idea to lie to David Letterman. Watch this collection of clips from last night’s show.
(That is the nine-minute version. It is worth watching. But if you are rushed, here is a three-minute version.)
Like some kind of bi-polar Drama Queen, McCain has, in the course of a week, gone from assuring us that the economy is “fundamentally sound” to full-on, hair-on-fire panic mode. And, once again, McCain is pretending to be president, just like during the Georgia crisis this summer when he was egging on Saalkashvili in his taunting of Moscow and claiming to “speak for every American” in declaring, “Today, we are all Georgians.” At the time I wrote that that episode demonstrated that McCain shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the White House
Harold Meyerson has a great column on this in today’s Washington Post (“McCain’s Ploy”). It is well worth reading the entire thing. He concludes,
[McCain] cannot win on the strength of his positions. He can only win on the strength of his character. Problem is, McCain's character, as we have seen in his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, is heavy on decisiveness and weak on judgment. In this, despite his campaign's protestations, a McCain presidency would be very much an extension of George W. Bush’s. The president helped McCain out last night by inviting both candidates to Washington today to put their imprimatur on a deal that seemed near completion. At the risk of making McCain's gesture look less heroic, he also made it look less self-absorbed.
But self is McCain's selling point. He is either the man on horseback riding to the rescue, or he is nothing -- or, more precisely, the loser come November. Obama, Lord knows, has his flaws, but he does not seem to believe that the nation's crises are primarily about him.
There is another intriguing twist to this whole thing. McCain is seeking to “postpone” tomorrow’s debate until October 2 – which conveniently is when the vice presidential debate is scheduled to take place. It’s become abundantly clear that Palin is a full-on train wreck. The McCain campaign has not let her hold a single news conference since she was named to the ticket. (Even Dan Quayle held a press conference the day after he was nominated. Biden has held dozens since he was named.) They are doing everything they can to hide her from the press and won’t let her say a word without careful scripting and supervision. This is truly astounding. We are looking at the possibility of a virtual unknown being put in the position of becoming the most powerful person on the planet without holding a single press conference before the election. She is not yet VP and she is already in Cheney’s secure, undisclosed location as far as press access is concerned.
Do you think I’m exaggerating? Look what happened when they gave her an interview with Katie Couric. It is semi-coherent gibberish.
Watch this clip on the bailout.
And this one on sharing a border with Russia.
(You MUST watch these video clips – it is your patriotic duty. And then do everything possible to ensure she does not become a cancerous 72-year-old heartbeat from becoming president of the United States.)
If you were stuck with Palin as your VP nominee wouldn’t you everything you could to weasel your way out of her appearing unscripted on stage with Joe Biden for 90 minutes?
McCain believes the financial crisis doesn’t leave time for the presidential debate tomorrow night, but he has scheduled interviews on all three major network (NBC, CBS, ABC) news programs tonight. And he appeared on CBS news last night.
Here are a few more pundit reactions:
John McCain faced another crisis yesterday--a political one, not the financial emergency he used as an excuse for his rash actions--and once again he overreacted. This is becoming a pattern (as is his "greatest crisis since..." formulation: yesterday, since World War II; previously--on Georgia--since the end of the cold war), and it is not very reassuring behavior in a potential President. …
… Obama's cool steadfastness has put him in the driver's seat on this one.
And that raises an interesting question: Why was McCain so quick to pull out of the debate? After all, with the momentum slightly in Obama's direction, he needed a game-changer--and foreign policy is, allegedly, his area of expertise. His peremptory actions yesterday was not the behavior of a confident man. It was the behavior of a man uncertain, despite all the macho bluster, about his chances in the most important theater of battle in any presidential campaign, one where gimmicks, diversions and untruths can be directly countered by his opponent. McCain may clean Obama's clock in the coming debates--but it seems entirely possible that the old fighter jock may be frightened that he's about to ditch another plane.
WTF? You can’t just stop the presidential campaign — what does that even mean?
Meanwhile, I think walking and chewing gum at the same time is part of the president’s job.
He hasn't cast a vote in congress since April. I mean he's not gonna be working on the legislation. The debate is scheduled between the two men who want the job of running the country. I don't understand the logic of saying let's cancel the debate. ... The public wants to know which one of these men is capable of leading the country. They'll learn more about that by listening them have a debate about the issues.
It occurs to me that McCain's gambit is likely to delay the bailout negotiations, not speed them up. Why? Because now, if the administration and Congressional Republicans can't make a deal without undercutting McCain's claim that the negotiations are failing and a campaign suspension is needed to rescure them. All the reporting I've seen suggests a deal was in the works. Now it's going to be in limbo, unless Republicans are willing to kneecap their own candidate.
I think Americans will see it for what it is, a political stunt. It makes McCain look cowardly, like he's not ready to mix it up with Obama, and like he's hiding from the perilous economic developments of the last few weeks.
The Republican presidential nominee is hoping that his abrupt decision ... will be seen as the kind of country-first, bipartisan leadership he believes Americans want. What he risks, if things don't go as he hopes, is a judgment by voters that his move was a reckless act by an impetuous and struggling politician that hardened partisan lines in Washington at just the wrong moment and complicated efforts to deal with the biggest financial crisis in more than half a century.
John McCain is in trouble every time conditions prevail. And that's when he pulls a razzle-dazzle. McCain calls this move when he sees the voter going back to the default button.
"Fire Chris Cox!" "Bring in Gov. Palin!" "Call off the first night of the Republican convention!" Anything that changes the situation away from that default button where people naturally say, "When one administration fails, when one party fails, you try the other one."
We saw it again when he called Wednesday night calling for a delay of the debates, "I'm not going to the debates."
Our friend Tom Skerrit understands the plot. As a screenwriter and actor, he understands drama:
..'I'm going to Washington and won't debate until a viable economic policy is in place.'... or words to that effect. McCain goes to Washington, sits through a hearing this a.m. . Barney Frank announces tonight that the Republican Congress walked out when a policy was almost in place..... Drama!.
So, late tomorrow, early Saturday, over the weekend, there will, at last, be an agreement...
...that McCain has brokered...too late to debate, but, he's a 'hero'..... Drama!
McCain has, singlehandedly, saved America.....
Can it be so pedestrian as this... .Soap Opera?