In the Arena

What Actually Happened Yesterday–Sept. 25 Edition

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The New York Times has an excellent account of the impact of John McCain’s bailout freakout on the actual work of negotiating a compromise. There are several stunning revelations here. First, House Minority Leader John Boehner’s top aide pretty much conceded that among the motivations for the House Republicans’ refusal to go along with the plan was to save face for McCain:

The aide, Kevin Smith, said Republicans revolted, in part, because they were chafing at what they saw as an attempt by Democrats to jam through an agreement on the bailout early Thursday and deny Mr. McCain an opportunity to participate in the agreement.

This is patent nonsense of course–it was the Bush Administration and Senate Republicans, as well as the Democrats in both houses, who favored the renegotiated bailout plan.

But more important is the revelation that McCain, who rushed back to Washington to expedite the negotiations, had very little to say–or even ask–about the plan:

Mr. McCain was at one end of the long conference table, Mr. Obama at the other, with the president and senior Congressional leaders between them. Participants said Mr. Obama peppered Mr. Paulson with questions, while Mr. McCain said little.

McCain couldn’t even pull the trigger on whether he favored the Paulson bailout, the House Republican alternative…or some combination of the two:

Mr. Boehner pressed an alternative that involved a smaller role for the government, and Mr. McCain, whose support of the deal is critical if fellow Republicans are to sign on, declined to take a stand.

So McCain “suspends” his campaign–he didn’t, really–and equivocates about whether to debate because the financial emergency is so crucial–a week after he said the fundamentals of the economy were sound–and he flies to Washington where:

1. The House Republicans blow up a rare, and necessary, moment of true bipartisanship to make it look like McCain, who has no expertise in this area, has come to the rescue.

2. McCain sits mute in the White House summit arranged for his benefit. He doesn’t even ask Paulson what he thinks of the House Republican plan.

3. He refuses to take a stand, one way or another, on the Republican plan.

In the meantime, Washington Mutual–the nation’s largest thrift–fails. Other banks are teetering. Credit has dried up…and the world financial markets are watching to see if the United States has the political wherewithal to save itself. McCain’s erratic, and irresponsible, behavior this week isn’t happening in a vacuum. This isn’t just politics–even George W. Bush, who never failed to take a partisan advantage in his presidency, realizes that. It is a time for leadership, a time for John McCain to explain to his fellow Republicans that this is one moment where government activism is absolutely necessary, that they have to get behind the Paulson compromise–and also try to explain to the general public, as Bush did on Wednesday night, that their savings and mortgages may be at stake if federal action isn’t taken. We’ve seen nothing like that from McCain. Just histrionics.

Update: John Judis on this subject.