Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Okay, Now What?

Over the many months of a presidential campaign, it's usually difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when the balance was tipped decisively in favor of one candidate and the outcome all but decided. However, the 2008 contest between Obama and McCain was an exception. When you look at the weekly polling data--either through most of the individual pollsters or especially in aggregate--you can clearly see that something happened in late-September that allowed Obama to pull away from what had been a close race (some polls even showed McCain ahead) and cruise to victory in November.

The event that triggered this turning point was the collapse of the stock market and the government's efforts to stop the freefall and save the economy. But it wasn't the event itself that turned the tide as much as the candidate's reaction to it. John McCain suspended his campaign and went back to Washington to supposedly lead the way in working out a plan. At the time, I thought it was a bold move that would help highlight McCain's concern for putting the good of the country over politics. Of course, I assumed that McCain actually had some idea of what the end game might be.

Judging from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's memoir "On the Brink," that assumption was wildly optimistic. Here's an excerpt that appeared in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:

By protocol, the president turned to call on the speaker of the House. And when Nancy Pelosi spoke, it was clear the Democrats had done their homework and had planned a skillful response for McCain.

Ms. Pelosi said that Obama would represent the Democrats. Then Obama sketched the broad outlines of the problem and stressed the need for immediate action. He said the Democrats had been working closely with me; he ran through the rough terms of the morning's discussion on the Hill, then mentioned the need for adjustments on oversight and executive compensation, as well as help for homeowners. He spoke without notes--much less a teleprompter--and spoke eloquently. "The Democrats will deliver the votes," he asserted.

Then he sprang the trap that the Democrats had set: "Yesterday, Senator McCain and I issued a joint statement, saying in one voice that this is no time to be playing politics. And on the way here, we were on the brink of a deal. Now, there are those who think we should start from scratch…. If we are indeed starting over, the consequences could well be severe."

But, of course, there was no deal yet. [Rep. Spencer] Bachus [R., Ala.] had been maneuvered into giving credibility to the appearance of one. But he, [House Minority Leader John] Boehner and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell had since issued statements disclaiming the idea that there ever had been a deal. Now Obama and the Democrats were skillfully setting up the story line that McCain's intervention had polarized the situation and that Republicans were walking away from an agreement. It was brilliant political theater that was about to degenerate into farce. Skipping protocol, the president turned to McCain to offer him a chance to respond: "I think it's fair that I give you the chance to speak next."

But McCain demurred. "I'll wait my turn," he said. It was an incredible moment, in every sense. This was supposed to be McCain's meeting--he'd called it, not the president, who had simply accommodated the Republican candidate's wishes. Now it looked as if McCain had no plan at all--his idea had been to suspend his campaign and summon us all to this meeting. It was not a strategy, it was a political gambit, and the Democrats had matched it with one of their own.

Boehner said he was trying to find a way to get House Republicans on board. "I am not talking about a totally new deal, but we do need to tweak the core part of the program," he said.

Decorum started to evaporate as the meeting broke into multiple side conversations with people talking over each other. [Sen. Richard] Shelby [R., Ala.] waved a sheaf of papers, claiming they were from more than 100 economists who all thought TARP was a bad idea. The president jumped in to say, "No, this is a situation where we need to act. We don't have time to have hearings with a bunch of economists."

Finally, raising his voice over the din, Obama said loudly, "I'd like to hear what Senator McCain has to say, since we haven't heard from him yet."

The room went silent and all eyes shifted to McCain, who sat quietly in his chair, holding a single note card. He glanced at it quickly and proceeded to make a few general points. He said that many members had legitimate concerns and that I had begun to head in the right direction on executive pay and oversight. He mentioned that Boehner was trying to move his caucus the best he could and that we ought to give him the space to do that. He added he had confidence the consensus could be reached quickly.

As he spoke, I could see Obama chuckling. McCain's comments were anticlimactic, to say the least. His return to Washington was impulsive and risky, and I don't think he had a plan in mind. If anything, his gambit only came back to hurt him, as he was pilloried in the press afterward, and in the end, I don't believe his maneuver significantly influenced the TARP legislative process. A number of people I respect on the Hill believe McCain ended up being helpful by focusing public attention on TARP and galvanizing Congress to action. And John later did find ways for House Republicans to support legislation. But Democrats absolutely did not want him to get any credit. They wanted the economic issue as their own. Accusing McCain of blowing up a nondeal was just hardball political tactics. But when it came right down to it, he had little to say in the forum he himself had called.

One of the biggest fears that many conservatives had about McCain was that beneath the talk of patriotism, service, and duty, there wasn't much of a foundation of core principles that would help McCain grapple with tough choices and guide his decision making, especially when it came to economic matters. If Paulson's accounts of what transpired in those September 2008 meetings are correct, those fears would seem to have been validated.

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