The Bailout Bill Failed. Should We Blame McCain?


Be careful what you wish for, Senator. You just might get it.

Speaking at a rally in Columbus, Ohio this afternoon, Republican presidential nominee John McCain defended his controversial decision to "suspend" his campaign as an example of his action-packed leadership style. “Inaction was not an option,” McCain said. “I put my campaign on hold for a couple of days last week to fight for a rescue plan that puts you and your economic security and working families first. I fought for a plan that protected taxpayers. I went to Washington last week to make sure the taxpayers of Ohio and across this great country were not left footing the bill." 

"I’ll never be a president who sits on the sidelines when this country faces a crisis,” McCain added. “ I’ll never do it. I know many of you have noticed it’s not my style to simply phone it in."

Apparently no one told him what was happening in Washington as he spoke. At 1:46 p.m. this afternoon--after a weekend of marathon negotiations and a four-hour floor debate--the House of Representatives voted to reject the Bush Administration's $700 billion bipartisan compromise package meant to rescue the financial industry. The measure needed 218 votes. It came up 13 votes short--228 to 205. The problem? A handful of the seventy-five House Republicans who had agreed to support the bill backed out at the last minute. On Wall Street, where traders were watching C-SPAN, the Dow Jones instantly fell more than 600 points.

McCain says his "suspension" was meant to help the country. Critics say it was meant to help his campaign. It now seems that he's failed by either standard.

When McCain landed in Washington Thursday morning--more than 24 hours after announcing that he had put his campaign on hold--there was a preliminary bipartisan agreement on the table. It was far from final, but it appeared to be moving along well. In fact, on Wednesday night, House Minority LeaderJohn Boehner and Speaker Nancy Pelosi had even issued a joint statement declaring progress. But McCain's presence politicized the proceedings, and dissatisfied House Republicans used his involvement as a pretext to raise the volume of their objections.By the time McCain arrived at the White House for a key meeting with President Bush and Barack Obama, the House GOP was in full revolt. But McCain remained mostly silent. For the rest of the day, he "rarely came close to the Capitol suites and committee rooms where the talks were taking place." By 10:30 that night, negotiations had imploded.

But despite promising to boycott the debate unless Congress reached a “consensus on legislation," McCain cited "significant progress" and skipped off to Oxford on Friday morning--even though "consensus" and "legislation" seemed more distant than when he suspended his campaign. Apparently,McCain was confident that everything would work out. When he returned Saturday to Washington, he didn't visit Capitol Hill, choosing instead (in the words of top aide Mark Salter) to "do what he needs to do by phone" from the campaign's Arlington headquarters. That night, as negotiators struck a deal, he dined at a four-star restaurant. On Sunday, chief McCain strategist Steve Schmidt confidently predictedon Meet the Press that McCain had "help[ed] bring all of the parties to the table, including the House Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass this." And McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker told FOX News this morning that the deal would not have happened "without Senator McCain."

So much, it seems, for "not phoning it in." After a weekend of dial-tone diplomacy, two-thirds of House Republicans--the same people McCain claimed to have "brought to the table"--voted against the Bush Administration's bill. (Most were at-risk representatives seeking to cover their electoral derrieres.) Meanwhile, the Democrats--whom McCain immediately tried to blame, along with Obama--delivered more votes than they promised. McCain isn't the House GOP whip; it's not his job to keep members in line. But when the bipartisan bailout compromise was on the verge of passing, he tried to claim credit--even though he did little more than politicize and possibly prolong the proceedings. McCain wanted the plan to pass, and he wanted to be responsible. (Obama made no similar claims for himself.) So now that it's been defeated, doesn't McCain--by his own standards--deserve some of the blame? For the next few days, Democrats will hammer the Arizona senator--for failing to lead his party, for "gambling" with the nation's economy, for being "erratic."  Their attacks may hurt his campaign. But the more important question--as the plunging Dow illustrates--is whether the country has been hurt in the process.

I honestly don't know which one--campaign or country--McCain meant, in his heart of hearts, to "put first" with this maneuver. But at this point, neither seems to have benefited from his behavior.  

UPDATE, 4:59 p.m.: The Dow Jones industrials close 777.68 points lower on Monday--a 6.97 percent drop, the biggest loss since 2001. Which puts the stock market below where it was on President Bush's first day in office. Meanwhile, Republicans say that Pelosi's floor speech "poisoned the outcome." Was it unproductive? Absolutely. But hurt feelings don't entitle grown men and women to endanger the stability of the world's financial markets.

UPDATE, 5:37 p.m.:Reader M.M. notes that "McCain tried, but his part is the minority. Obama’s party is in the majority. He could have used his influence to get the bill passed." It's not quite that simple. I'll pass the mic to Ambinderto explain: "For one thing, a lot of House Dems aren't thrilled with the bailout, and they need political cover from Republicans. It's an iron-clad rule of legislative politics: something this big and this risky can't go through without bipartisan support -- which is basically bipartisan CYA.  So the more House Republicans make noise, the more nervous House Democrats will be." In other words, the Democrats and Republicans made a deal before the vote to deliver a certain number of votes each. The Democrats made good on their part of the bargain; the Republicans didn't. Obama's not the issue.

The public, by the way, isn't quite opposed to the bill--whatever its merits (or lack thereof). According to today's Rasmussen poll, 33 percent of likely voters now favor the plan; 32 percent are opposed and 35 percent aren't sure. It's hardly popular, which is why at-risk pols are reluctant to vote for it. But it's not necessarily poison, either.

UPDATE, 6:06 p.m.: Landing in Iowa, McCain claims its not the the time to "affix...blame"--then promptly points his finger at Obama. "Senator Obama and his allies in Congress infused unnecessary partisanship into the process," he says. Delightful.