Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Question of Leadership

Andrew Romano

What if John McCain's "amazing gambit"--suspending his campaign, calling off Friday's debate and inviting Barack Obama to return to Washington with him to work on the economic crisis--ends not with a bang but a whimper?

That's the way it's looking right now. When McCain delivered his surprise announcement here in New York yesterday afternoon, both he and the Democratic Party were quick to say that the Treasury's $700 billion bailout bill was in grave danger of collapsing. For McCain, "it ha[d] become clear that no consensus ha[d] developed to support the Administration's proposal" and that the nation was "running out of time." For the Dems, McCain's return to Washington "risk[ed] injecting presidential politics into this process" and delaying the legislation. Of course, this was pure political posturing. McCain wanted to appear as if he were rescuing America from a dire situation. The Democrats wanted it to appear as if he were creating one.

But the truth is, the legislation itself was approaching the finish line by the time McCain dropped his bombshell. "By 2:00 p.m. yesterday," writes the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, "the House and Senate Democrats had settled their most important differences, the White House had caved on CEO pays, and the two sides were coming close to dealing with the bailout's oversight mechanism, its posture toward homeowners, and whether taxpayers would get ownership stakes in taken-over companies." Given that, it's somewhat ludicrous for McCain to claim--as he did again this morning in speech at the Clinton Global Initiative--that "no consensus has developed" and that "the plan on the table will [not] pass." That's simply not true. In fact, many of McCain's "five fundamental improvements"--oversight, CEO pay--have already been adopted. According to reports from the Hill, the most likely sequence of events for today is that Republican and Democratic congressional leaders--who are convening this morning (without McCain) to hammer the details--will present a consensus framework to be ratified at the unprecedented White House meeting between President Bush, Obama, McCain and top negotiators scheduled for 4:00 p.m.

At this point, McCain would have two choices: either sign off on the framework or, citing pet provisions left on the cutting room floor, announce that he will oppose the bill until it meets his exact specifications. The latter scenario is possible. The Senate Democratic leadership reportedly fears that McCain will vote "no"--defying Bush and "standing with" the American people, who remain skeptical of the bailout--in an attempt to burnish his "maverick" brand. But that maneuver carries such significant risks--not the least of which is being seen as deliberately destroying (for his own political posturing) a fragile bipartisan compromise that's crucial to the nation's economic security--that I suspect McCain take the safer route: acquiesce at the White House, vote "yes" on the legislation and fly to Oxford, Miss. in time for Friday night's debate.

Hence the whimper. Of course, McCain will try to argue that a) he helped seal the deal and b) improved the flawed Bush legislation to guard taxpayers. But the chronology--which shows that Congress and the White House were already nearing an agreement when McCain parachuted in--will contradict him. As House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said yesterday, "now that we’re on the verge of making a deal, John McCain drops himself in to make a deal." The only accurate argument available to McCain will be that the potentially polarizing effects of his presence "lit a fire under the behinds of Democratic negotiators," pushing them to meet today's 4:00 p.m. deadline--which, incidentally, was set by Bush. In other words, McCain's actual involvement will be entirely symbolic--a gesture rather than an accomplishment.

In all likelihood, the bill will pass. The candidates will debate. And business as usual will resume. Does this mean that voters should simply forget McCain's startling maneuver? Hardly. It may not result in any real consequences--positive or negative--but the Arizona senator's decision (and Obama's reaction) has provided us with the clearest window to date on their contrasting styles of leadership. Neither candidate did, said or proposed anything that actually helped solve the problem at hand. But their individual instincts were on display. Half-submerged in a political quagmire of economic uncertainty and dismal polling, McCain discarded the rules of the road and made a dramatic, unorthodox move that sent a unmistakable message but showed little concern for logistics on the ground. Meanwhile, Obama remained dispassionate, sticking to his talking points--here are my improvements; the debate must go on--and staying in Florida until summoned to Washington by the president.

Views on the candidates in crisis will differ. It's like a Rorschach Test of presidential leadership. Some will see McCain's response as bold, assertive, unconventional and impassioned. Indeed, the former fighter pilot's "need for speed" may be one reason he's leading among Independents--who are angrier than ever at Washington and may appreciate McCain's "mad as hell" attitude--by an astonishing 14 points (up from six earlier this month) in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Others will see McCain's response as gimmicky, reckless, impulsive and opportunistic. "An affront to American voters," carped the Washington Post's Harold Meyerson. "McCain's ploy was transparent." Likewise, Obama's reaction will strike some voters as steady, strong, rational and pragmatic. The aforementioned NBC/WSJ survey, for instance, shows that a majority of voters now agree that the Illinois senator could handle a military crisis well as president--a possible product of his confidence and certainty in the face of the Wall Street meltdown. Others, however, will see him as passive, detached, conventional and cautious.

Predictably, many of these disagreements will break along party lines. C'est la vie politique. The question going forward is what portion of the tiny segment of the populace still unsure which candidate they'll support on Nov. 4 will prefer McCain's style of leadership--as currently on display, and as reinforced over the next 40 days--to Obama's. More than anything else, the answer will determine our next president.

source: A Question of Leadership