John McCain is rapidly making his temperament an inescapable issue in the presidential campaign. Does the nation really want so much drama in the White House?
McCain's performance in recent days has been, to put it charitably, erratic. In an attempt to show leadership on the financial crisis, he has called Americans into ranks-long after hostilities already began. Meanwhile, back in much-reviled Washington, the generals with cooler heads and a clearer picture of the battlefield are doing their jobs, minus all the histrionics.
Thus far, an objective observer would have to say that Congress has behaved well in the days since Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson delivered a three-page ransom note that said, and I paraphrase, "Give me $700 billion, or I'd hate to see anything bad happen to that nice economy of yours."
Our elected representatives took seriously the urgency of the crisis. They did not fall into partisan bickering. A rough consensus began to emerge: It is important to act expeditiously but not to panic. It is unwise to give this administration-or any administration-a blank check with absolutely no oversight, as Paulson had sought. Paulson, the White House or somebody should explain why this plan will work and why some other plan wouldn't work better. And the corporate executives who put their companies at risk and then turn to the government for a bailout should not be rewarded with multimillion-dollar compensation packages subsidized by the taxpayers.
Negotiations between a Democratic Congress and a Republican administration on these and other points seemed to be proceeding at lightning speed, given the usual pace of such things in Washington. But then, for reasons known only to himself, in charged McCain to rescue the unimperiled. Said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who has been the lead negotiator for the Democratic majority in the House: "Now that we are on the verge of making a deal, John McCain airdrops himself in to help us make a deal."
At face value, McCain's sudden "suspension" of his campaign and his call to delay the first presidential debate can be seen as pure politics. Lately, McCain has been sliding in the polls and Barack Obama has been rising. The Wall Street crisis markedly accelerated these trends. Late September is not the time to let your opponent widen his lead.
Changing the subject, which the McCain people have raised to an art form, wasn't an option this time-the public is hardly in the mood for another Paris Hilton ad-so the campaign had to try to somehow get out in front of the crisis. Given McCain's initial assessment that the fundamentals of the economy are strong, that wasn't going to be easy.
The solution was to try to make it look as if McCain were leading the heroic effort to save the American way of life. To do this, he had to portray the negotiations over a rescue plan-which had been making orderly progress-as stalled and in ruin. "We must meet as Americans, not as Democrats or Republicans, and we must meet until this crisis is resolved," McCain said, calling on everyone to "temporarily set politics aside."
But in trying to put himself at center stage, McCain managed to insert politics into the situation. The first issue all week on which congressional Democrats and Republicans split along party lines was whether McCain's noisy intervention demonstrated boldness or bluster.
The surest way to derail any prospect of a timely rescue plan would be to have Obama and McCain get involved in the nit and the grit of the negotiations. The reason is obvious: The two major-party presidential candidates would never really abandon the campaign with less than six weeks left before the election. They'd just be shifting it to a venue where it could do maximum damage. The anodyne joint statement from the two campaigns Wednesday highlighting the urgency of the situation was about the most constructive thing Obama and McCain could do, next to staying the hell out of the way.
McCain succeeded in focusing attention on himself, but not necessarily in a good way. Voters may see this not as an illustration of brave leadership but as another example of McCain's "ready, fire, aim" approach to dealing with any crisis. Putting himself at the center of events-making any situation all about him-is more than a political tactic for McCain. It's his nature, and I wonder if most Americans won't be unnerved at the prospect of electing a president who's always so ready for his close-up.