Two Lessons of the Bailout Imbroglio

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OXFORD, Miss. — In the post-debate spin room, McCain campaign honcho Steve Schmidt said this about the recent events in Washington surrounding the bailout:

It’s been a remarkable last couple of days. The Democratic leaders in Congress tried to pull a pretty big con job on the American people. You know, this notion that they had a deal. There was no deal in place with time running very short. If there was a deal in place, who were the members that supported the deal? Somebody should be able to name maybe 30 of them. There are 535 members of Congress. [Congressional leaders didn’t] have Democratic votes in the House of Representatives to pass the vote. The Republicans in the House were excluded from the process. Sen. McCain was on the phone. He was in meetings this morning and what he did is through his leadership brought people together. Got this process moving forward and the talks are progressing tonight. . . . I think what people saw yesterday in Washington was a disgusting display of partisanship. What they saw was John McCain working behind the scenes to fix a process that had gone horribly wrong, with those very big stakes.

About 15 feet away, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was talking about the same stuff, with a rather different spin:

McCain roiled things yesterday, and I think set things back. Listen, the principles that Barack Obama laid out–taxpayer protections, making sure CEOs don’t profit, more transparency, more oversight–they weren’t in the original Bush package, the Paulson package. We think they will be now, hopefully, in any agreement. I think McCain is–you know, we’re glad he swooped into Washington, but we think it was more of a political stunt than anything else. And listen, I think people see through it. I think people see through it.

So which one is right? My guess is historians will record that both sides are overstating the importance of McCain’s presence in Washington. Schmidt is right that Democrats never had the Republican votes in the House to pass the deal they declared all but done on Thursday. The House Republican revolt had a natural momentum of its own, driven by emboldened conservative activists outside Congress, popular upheaval in Congressional districts, and a long standing distrust of President Bush. Had McCain stayed completely on the sidelines, my guess is Minority Leader John Boehner still would have led a blow-back, forcing Congressional leaders back to the table to lose their weekends hammering out a compromise before Monday.