McCain Leaps Into a Thicket
Senator John McCain had intended to ride back into Washington on Thursday as a leader who had put aside presidential politics to help broker a solution to the financial crisis. Instead he found himself in the midst of a remarkable partisan showdown, lacking a clear public message for how to bring it to an end.
At the bipartisan White House meeting that Mr. McCain had called for a day earlier, he sat silently for more than 40 minutes, more observer than leader, and then offered only a vague sense of where he stood, said people in the meeting.
In subsequent television interviews, Mr. McCain suggested that he saw the bipartisan plan that came apart at the White House meeting as the proper basis for an eventual agreement, but he did not tip his hand as to whether he would give any support to the alternative put on the table by angry House Republicans, with whom he had met before going to the White House.
He said he was hopeful that a deal could be struck quickly and that he could then show up for his scheduled debate on Friday night against his Democratic rival in the presidential race, Senator Barack Obama. But there was no evidence that he was playing a major role in the frantic efforts on Capitol Hill to put a deal back together again.
On the second floor of the Capitol on Thursday night, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of Mr. McCain’s closest confidants, complained to a throng of reporters that Democrats were using Mr. McCain as a scapegoat for the failure of the rescue package. But Mr. Graham was met with a barrage of questions on why Mr. McCain never explicitly said he favored the bailout proposal.
The situation was evolving so rapidly that it was all but impossible to judge the political implications; with the government under intense pressure to avoid another breach in confidence in the global financial markets, it was possible that a deal could be struck without further reshaping the campaign and that Mr. McCain could still be able to claim a role in a positive outcome.
Still, as a matter of political appearances, the day’s events succeeded most of all in raising questions about precisely why Mr. McCain had called for postponing the first debate and returned to Washington to focus on the bailout plan, and what his own views were about what should be done. Those political appearances are a key consideration for Mr. McCain less than six weeks from Election Day and at a time when some polls suggest he is losing ground against Mr. Obama, especially on handling the economy.
The substance of the financial crisis aside, it was already proving a tough stretch for Mr. McCain. Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, his running mate, struggled through questions about her foreign policy credentials during an interview with CBS News. Mr. McCain was lampooned on television by David Letterman.
Mr. Obama might not have fared much better. He had come to Washington only reluctantly, opening himself to criticism by Republicans that he was putting his election bid ahead of the need to resolve the Wall Street crisis, and prompting concern among Democrats that his reaction to the events was simply too measured, considering the stakes.
Still, by nightfall, the day provided the younger and less experienced Mr. Obama an opportunity to, in effect, shift roles with Mr. McCain. For a moment, at least, it was Mr. Obama presenting himself as the old hand at consensus building, and as the real face of bipartisan politics.
“What I’ve found, and I think it was confirmed today, is that when you inject presidential politics into delicate negotiations, it’s not necessarily as helpful as it needs to be,” Mr. Obama told reporters Thursday evening. “Just because there is a lot of glare of the spotlight, there’s the potential for posturing or suspicions.”
“When you’re not worrying about who’s getting credit, or who’s getting blamed, then things tend to move forward a little more constructively,” he said.
At the very least, Mr. McCain’s actions have shaken up the campaign and the negotiations over the bailout package. It has put him at center stage, permitted him to present himself as putting his country ahead of his campaign — a recurring theme of his candidacy — and put him on deck to, if not help orchestrate a deal, at least be associated with one.
But Mr. McCain is certainly seeing the risks of making such a direct intervention. He now finds himself in the middle of an ideological war that pits conservative Republicans, loath to spending so much taxpayer money on Wall Street, against the Bush White House, which, with the support of Democrats and a sizable number of Republicans, sees a bailout package as essential to averting a potential economic disaster.
While there is no doubt a middle ground, at the moment Mr. McCain finds himself between conservatives that he needs to keep on his side for the election, a group that while long wary of him had rallied to his side after his choice of Ms. Palin as his running mate, or being identified with the failure to complete a plan.
Mr. McCain’s actions have put into doubt what was shaping up as a critical moment in the campaign: the first presidential debate, scheduled for Friday night in Mississippi. In suspending his campaign, Mr. McCain declared that he would not attend the debate unless a deal was worked out. That threat drew considerable criticism on Thursday, from Mr. Obama’s camp, as well as newspaper editorial boards. And as the day went on, Mr. McCain dropped a hint that the ultimatum was not as ironclad as he once said it was.
The debate on Friday night would appear to play to Mr. McCain’s strengths: Its subject, by the agreement of the two campaigns and the debate commission, is supposed to be national security and foreign affairs. But the debate’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, said Thursday that he did not feel constrained to stick to those two topics, considering what has been going on in the country the past two weeks.
“I am not restrained from asking questions about the financial crisis,” Mr. Lehrer said in an e-mail message. “Stay tuned!”
One way or another, it could be in Mr. McCain’s interest to get this issue behind him. A New York Times/CBS News poll released Thursday found new evidence that the deteriorating economic environment was helping Mr. Obama. Voters who said the economy was the key issue for them were far more likely to support Mr. Obama. And 64 percent of voters expressed confidence in Mr. Obama’s ability to make the right decision on the economy, compared with 55 percent who said they were confident in Mr. McCain’s ability, according to the poll.
In a finding suggesting the difficult terrain Mr. McCain needs to navigate as Congress considers the Wall Street bailout 52 percent of respondents said Mr. McCain care more about protecting the interests of large corporations, compared with 32 percent who said that he cared most about protecting the interests of ordinary people. By contrast, 16 percent of respondents said that Mr. Obama was more concerned with protecting the interests of large corporations, compared with 70 percent said he was more concerned about ordinary people.
The survey found that Mr. Obama was supported by 47 percent of registered voters, compared with 42 percent for Mr. McCain; essentially the same as a Times/CBS News poll found last week, when Mr. Obama had 48 percent compared with 43 percent for Mr. McCain. The poll, of 936 adults, of whom 844 are registered voters, was taken from Sunday through Wednesday.
Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama both left the tense hourlong session at the White House through side doors, to avoid waiting reporters. Mr. McCain did a round of interviews timed on the network evening news, using the opportunity to say again and again that he understood the severity of the crisis and believed it would be resolved.
“Again, I hate to be so repetitious — I am confident we’ll reach an agreement,” he told ABC News. “We have to.”