John McCain is known as a lifelong gambler relishing visits to casinos. I have written before that I thought John McCain is also hot-headed and reckless. All these are not signs of the temperament required for a head of state. But his performance last week was extraordinary, even by his own standards.
His week started poorly when the headlines were blaring about a financial crisis and he had to backtrack from his earlier statement that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. He may actually be correct (I am not one who equates the health of Wall Street financial institutions and the stock market with the general economy, although the two are undoubtedly linked) but it was a poor choice of words and timing and he had to immediately retract and explain away, not a good thing to have to do for someone already being portrayed as being out of touch and ignorant on the economy.
Then on Tuesday there was the release of damaging news that his campaign chief Rick Davis’s company had received millions of dollars from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to provide access to McCain. Davis’s company was receiving a hefty retainer as late as August 2008 even though both Davis and McCain had said that Davis had no links to the two companies for over two years. So either Davis was lying to McCain or both were lying to the nation. The previously highly visible and voluble Davis who used to be interviewed all the time suddenly disappeared from sight, not talking to reporters
Then came Wednesday. First there was the release of the Washington Post-ABC News poll showing Obama surging ahead with a whopping 52-43 point lead, suggesting that McCain’s campaign was tanking and the Palin bounce was gone. Then there was the taping during the day of the interview that Sarah Palin had with CBS News’s Katie Couric. Apparently the Palin entourage who watched the interview realized that it was an unmitigated disaster (more on this tomorrow) and that it would dominate the news that evening.
McCain may have felt the need to make a dramatic move to obliterate all this bad news and put the focus back on himself, playing the role he loves of someone who does not play by the normal conventions. So he declared that he was ‘suspending his campaign’, flying back to Washington to solve the financial situation, and would even skip the much anticipated debate on Friday until and unless there was agreement on the bailout plan. This headline-grabbing move was reminiscent of his dramatic selection of Sarah Palin when it was becoming clear that Obama would have a rousing finale to the Democratic convention.
In tactical terms, both moves worked. They definitely overshadowed the other news, though the Palin-Couric interview still created waves. But just as the Palin selection rapidly declined in effect over the subsequent few weeks, the campaign ‘suspension’ move had an even shorter life, blowing up in just a few days.
For one thing it was pointed out that McCain’s ‘suspension’ had little meaningful content. He was still giving numerous interviews, his ads were running all over the country, and his surrogates were out in full force putting out his message.
Second, it proved embarrassing when it was revealed that McCain had not even read the Paulson plan, even though it was only three pages long.
Third, it came out that after all his dramatic statements about wanting to solve the problem, McCain was silent at the White House meeting on the plan. It was Obama who was active in the discussions, asking a lot of questions, some of them directly to McCain and not getting any response. McCain seemed disengaged.
Fourth, many lawmakers in Washington were not pleased with injecting presidential politics into the negotiations and openly said that the candidates’ presence was not helpful, since neither of them were members of the committees that were responsible for the matters involved in the negotiations.
Finally, the impression arose that the House Republicans had scuttled a tentative agreement at McCain’s request after he arrived in DC, so he was now portrayed as part of the problem, not the solution.
McCain was back in the spotlight but not in a good way. Speculations ran rampant as to the reasons for his erratic behavior. Did McCain scuttle the tentative agreement? If so, why? Some suggested that he wanted to ride to the rescue and solve the crisis single-handedly and was disappointed that an agreement seemed to have been reached before he arrived, so he sabotaged it even though he did not have a ready alternative.
Another suggested reason was that what he and his campaign actually wanted was to postpone or even cancel the Biden-Palin debate because of fears that she would be revealed live on national TV to be out of her depth. His campaign’s suggestion that his September 26 debate with Obama be postponed to October 2nd (the original date of the vice-presidential debate) and that the VP debate be vaguely rescheduled for a later date seemed to suggest that they were either trying to run out the clock completely or at least stall for more time to help her prepare.
Whatever the reasons, the tactic did not work. Instead attention became focused on his penchant for stunts and what it said about him and his campaign. Slate even ran a list of his next ten possible stunts to grab attention. (#1: Returns to Vietnam and jails himself.)
Faced with mounting criticism and even ridicule, McCain was forced to go to Mississippi for the debate with his tail between his legs, even though there was no bailout deal. During the debate he even weakly conceded that he would vote for the deal that would be worked out in Washington, even though he did not know at that time what eventual plan would be proposed. It is likely that this will be regarded as his worst week in his campaign, one misstep following another.
Oddly enough, I think McCain could have come out of this as a very big winner. There is huge public opposition to the bailout. It was a foregone conclusion that Obama, a good friend of Wall Street, would support the bailout plan in its essential outlines. If McCain had come out strongly opposing the bailout and openly led the efforts to scuttle it, he may have been able to accurately portray Obama, the Bush administration, and the Congressional leadership of both parties as serving only Wall Street interests, and ride a huge surge of public support as the only true champion of ordinary people, all the way to November.
But the gambler lost his nerve and folded. Wall Street enmeshes the political leadership of both parties in a tight embrace. To defy them now would be to defy all the people who have supported him all these years: his financial contributors, his own party’s leadership, George Bush, all his close advisors and confidantes, and those with whom he socializes. He would have been turning his back on his own class and he just could not bring himself to do it.
Although McCain rails against Washington elites and praises his own alleged maverickiness, when an occasion came along that provided an ideal vehicle to show his independence in a concrete way and not just as rhetoric, he capitulated. Such is the power of ruling class allegiance.
In the end, he did what he and Palin repeatedly keep saying you must never do. He blinked.
POST SCRIPT: McCain’s stunts
Jon Stewart gives his take on McCain’s erratic behavior.