On Wednesday, John McCain bet big. Instead of staying on the sidelines with Barack Obama, he shoved himself into the middle of the debate over a highly controversial, and likely unpopular, federal bailout of financial institutions with home mortgages they can no longer price. To underscore his commitment, he said tonight’s debate should be delayed. McCain’s bet, if it worked, had several clear political upsides: It would showcase him as 1) a leader, 2) the candidates with the experience to get things done, and 3) a man who put “country first.” If he lost the bet, McCain risked 1) being identified with a massive unpopular federal spending program, 2) being seen as political show-boater who inserted politics into an otherwise orderly process and 3) a candidate who would rather not debate Barack Obama. A big bet, indeed, and voters would decide the winner.
Barack Obama had a choice, and he chose to call McCain’s bet, and raise the pot. He rejected outright McCain’s claim that politics should be set (at least nominally) aside until the bailout was complete. He said he had no plans to go to Washington. He said the debate should go on. Obama’s supporters in Congress, his press shop, and his senior advisers then began making the argument that McCain was a political show-boater who would rather not debate. They also claimed that the bailout agreement was on track, and would be completed without either McCain’s or Obama’s intervention.
Suddenly, the stakes were very high. It was unclear what political pull McCain could muster. Obama was forced to travel to Washington. And with 11 hours to go before the first bipartisan candidate debate of the most dramatic election in two generations, no one seems to know if McCain will show up. Meanwhile, the nation’s economic leaders say that the very fate of our economy hangs in the balance. So how is this going to play out?
The announcers who call poker tournaments on ESPN have a decided advantage. They record their voice-overs after the tournament has ended, when all the hands have been decided and the victors are known. They can script their jokes and insights, and they know what cards each of the players hold. We in the political journalism business are not so lucky. But we can take a gander at some of the dynamics at play. After the jump is my attempt, which is likely to remain interesting for an hour or two, until events upend everything again. (Joe Klein’s attempt, which is posted below, should not be missed.)
1. It is clear that Senate leaders and Democratic strategists have not fully anticipated the degree of revolt growing in among House conservatives, most of whom came to Washington on a platform of keeping the government out of the economy. Conservative leaders say that every hour that has passed since last Friday has emboldened the rebellion. Phone calls and faxes are bombarding congressional offices, with huge margins of voters demanding that the bailout be opposed. Activists are motivating their bases to oppose the deal.
2. It remains squarely within McCain’s interest to get a deal before the markets open on Monday, both because that is what he said he would do on Wednesday when he announced he was returning to Washington and because the deal that leaders put together yesterday seems to address most of McCain’s stated concerns. It is hard for McCain to demonstrate his leadership, experience and “country first” determination if he cannot find a way to prevent what everyone agrees will be, at minimum, a short-term collapse of the markets, once they realize no bailout is coming right away.
3. It is unclear how much pull McCain has with the House Republican holdouts. Though McCain is the leader of the GOP, he has historically not been on good terms with those ideological activists that form the core of its Congressional membership. It’s possible that this final delay is just a gambit to win some compromise and allow McCain to declare a greater leadership and experience victory. It’s also possible that Republican leaders have a populist revolt on their hands they cannot control. Most likely, it is a combination of both these things, though in what mixture it is difficult to divine.
4. McCain might win if he can (at least appear) to broker a deal and then appear victorious at the debate tonight. It might not be fatal for McCain if the negotioations continue into tomorrow, he can (at least appear) to broker a deal Saturday, and then the debate is rescheduled. McCain will lose if he appears at the debate tonight with no clear deal, or (as mentioned above) if no deal is struck before Monday morning. These are the standards he has set for himself.
5. The whole spectacle would be much more fun to watch if it wasn’t for the fact that the nation’s economy, the jobs of millions, the prosperity of a nation, hangs in the balance.