In the Arena

Placing Blame

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I don’t blame John McCain for not rounding up enough Republican votes to get this bailout bill through the House of Representatives–he’s not a member of the House, he’s never held a leadership position and therefore doesn’t know how to whip votes and finally–well, uh–there is one tried and true method for getting members of Congress to vote aye and McCain opposes it: a sweetener, like say, funding for a bridge in their districts. That is one reason why we have earmarks. McCain is opposed to giving away baubles for the greater good.

I do blame McCain for his puerile histrionics and for dragging this issue–which should have been above partisanship–into presidential politics. Let’s make no mistake about it: his various gimmicks had absolutely nothing to do with the substance of the issue. He doesn’t know all that much about the substance of the issue. The gimmicks were a failed attempt to make it seem as if he had powers, and knowledge, he didn’t have. Clearly, he was in a more difficult position than Obama–the populist conservative wing of House Republicans was unwilling to take responsibility for the fruits of the deregulation that they promoted–and that might have required a more aggressive effort to move votes on his part, but the flailing about only confused Republicans (was he for, was he against?) and made matters worse.

As for Barack Obama, his visceral aversion to showboating did him a service. He laid out four requirements for his support of the bill–requests he had, clearly, coordinated with the Democratic Leadership (and which McCain supported). He made the necessary calls to keep up with the negotiations (as McCain did). He made it clear, without ostentation or fuss, that he supported the compromise. Even today, after the bill failed, Obama warned against panic and advised the Congress to get back to work and, “Get it done.”

This was, I believe, eminently rational behavior in a moment of crisis. Obama didn’t pretend that he could, or should, do something that he couldn’t do. He didn’t lead, but then, he wasn’t in a position to lead. (McCain’s games were the opposite of leadership–they were an unnecessary distraction.) There may be times in the future–in the next few weeks, in fact–when events will call for Obama to be a far more forceful presence. We’ll see whether he has it in him. But this wasn’t the time for that. It was the time for a cool head, something McCain has yet to demonstrate.

Update: Richard Holbrooke makes many of the same points about the candidates’ temperament in the context of Friday’s debate.