In the Arena

What Actually Happened Yesterday

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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.

The political crisis was real. And it wasn’t merely that he was slipping a bit in the polls. It was that he was being pressured on three sides. The responsible economic leadership of the Republican Party–people like his own economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin and, I assume, the corporate sorts he consults with–were urging him to support a modified version of the bailout package. At the same time, people like Bill Kristol–who can be a surprisingly amoral tactician when it comes to subjects other than foreign policy where he has firm, if mistaken, beliefs–were urging McCain to take a populist nutball Lou Dobbsian stand against the deal. A large number of House Republicans were leaning toward that position, which is why McCain suffered under the–mistaken, I believe–impression that the bailout was in some trouble. A third source of pressure came from those House Republicans who wanted to vote for the package, but didn’t want to be hung out to dry by their standard-bearer: they needed to know if McCain was for or against.

It should be noted that Barack Obama was under no such pressure, since Democrats–reluctantly, angrily, to be sure–actually believe, as President Bush does, that there will be real pain on Main Street if some sort of bailout isn’t achieved.

Happily, in the end, McCain did the responsible thing…but he did it foolishly, in a panicky fashion. He did support the emerging compromise. He took the Democrats’ modifications–on oversight, homeowner and taxpayer protection, and restrictions on payouts to the executives who made these disastrous decisions–and made them his own. His support will help widen the majority of legislators who will support the bill.

What McCain didn’t understand was that the legislative crisis was already receding when he made his melodramatic–and somewhat wild-eyed–suspension of campaign activities statement. (He didn’t understand this because he has had no input into the process and, indeed, is neither respected for his financial expertise nor desired in the process because of his combative, peremptory negotiating style.)In any case, the crisis was receding because the Bush Administration was caving to the Democrats’ modifications, as the President made clear in his speech last night. A Democratic Senator close to the negotiations told me after the speech, “We pretty much have a deal. The negotiations aren’t over, but this is just too damn important to get snagged on a codicil.”

Since it would have been fairly embarrassing to McCain for the crisis to end without his meaningless intervention, Bush laid on the White House summit and likely kumbaya session for this afternoon where the deal will probably be announced. And now, McCain faces a further embarrassment: what to do about his decision to pull out of the debate? It seems to me that if agreement is reached today, he has to debate tomorrow–and now, because of his “crisis” announcement, the debate will take place on turf less favorable to him: on economic as well as foreign policy. Even if an agreement isn’t reached today, he will be hard pressed to explain why he isn’t debating tomorrow. In any case, 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.