How John McCain Destroyed a Compromise to Save His Skin

Maybe you can appreciate the pickle John McCain had gotten himself into. Early on Wednesday afternoon, he dramatically announced the “suspension” of his candidacy so that he could return to Washington and play the hero role in the Congressional negotiations over a bailout of the financial system.

But by the time he finally made his way to nation’s capital a full day later – after first staying in New York for an interview with Katie Couric on Wednesday night in which he solemnly intoned that he didn’t “think in this time that we can worry much about politics, Katie,” and to deliver a speech on Thursday morning in which he declared that he “cannot carry on a campaign as though this dangerous situation had not occurred, or as though a solution were at hand, which it clearly is not” – a deal between some of the top Democrats and Republicans from the House and the Senate had been struck.

All week, Democratic and Republicans Congressional negotiators had been working toward a compromise, while McCain had been out campaigning. In fact, as recently as Tuesday, McCain hadn’t even read Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s three-page bailout proposal. And now, after he’d shouted his intention to (belatedly) throw himself into the discussions, it looked like there was nothing left to discuss. The dispute had been resolved, and McCain hadn’t even made it to town yet. So much for his campaign “suspension” – and his demand that Friday night’s debate be postponed because of the (supposed) Congressional stalemate.

At a press conference just after noon, influential Congressional Republicans and Democrats joined together to declare that a basic agreement was at hand.

Robert Bennett, a top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, said that “I now expect we will indeed have a plan that can pass the House, pass the Senate, be signed by the president” and labeled this week’s bipartisan negotiations “one of the most productive sessions” of his legislative career.

“We focused on solving the problem, rather than posturing politically,” he said.

Democrat Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, couldn’t resist taking a shot at McCain, stating that “there’s no deadlock to break.”

McCain and Barack Obama were scheduled to meet at the White House a few hours later with President Bush and Congressional leaders, but suddenly that session looked like formality. A deal had been struck – one that the Bush administration would almost certainly go along with, since it built on the basic parameters outlined in Paulson’s plan – and passage in the House and Senate seemed imminent. What’s more, this made the idea of postponing Friday’s debate laughable, meaning McCain would have to backtrack on his threats to skip it – making his “suspension” ploy all the more absurd and political-looking.

What was McCain to do? Well, here’s what it looks like he did: Ally himself with conservative Republicans in the House and encourage their resistance to the deal in an effort to blow it up – and, thus, create the kind of drama and suspense necessary for McCain to assume the heroic role he carved out for himself on Wednesday.

This wasn’t that hard to do. House Republicans were represented at Thursday’s bipartisan news conference (by Spencer Bachus, the ranking Republican on the Financial Services Committee), but the House G.O.P. Conference is filled with conservative true-believers, ideologically inflexible types who are less common in the Senate.

Among this crowd, the idea of any kind of a government-funded bailout is philosophically unacceptable, and the Republican Study Committee – basically, the most conservative Republicans in the House – drafted their own alternative plan, one that included no taxpayer-funded bailout. Their objections were neither new nor unknown as Congressional negotiations unfolded this week – and when the bipartisan compromise was announced on Thursday afternoon.

What was new was that McCain on Thursday afternoon – after the deal was announced – met with John Boehner, the House G.O.P. leader, and, according to one report, began gauging support in the House for the Study Committee’s plan. In other words, he breathed new life into the House conservatives’ bailout opposition.

And that fundamentally changed the nature of the White House meeting later on Thursday. Instead of cementing a bipartisan deal among leaders of both chambers, the session, by all accounts, quickly devolved into contention. Boehner, whose (perhaps tenuous, after the November elections) hold on his conference is dependent on the backing of conservatives, showed up to vent their rekindled opposition, while McCain talked about possible alternative scenarios. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee and a man sympathetic to the House conservatives’ bailout skepticism, stepped out of the meeting after about an hour to announce that there was no deal.

When the meeting broke up, it was obvious that progress toward a resolution had dramatically regressed over the course of Thursday afternoon – a regression that coincided with McCain’s arrival in Washington and his insertion of himself into the negotiations. With Boehner and the House G.O.P. balking, passage of the bipartisan deal seemed doubtful, since significant Republican support would be a prerequisite for Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivering most of the House Democratic Caucus. With the election six weeks away, Pelosi hardly wants her party to own the bailout.

“What this looked like to me,” a visibly angry Chris Dodd told a television reporter after the White House meeting, “was a rescue plan for John McCain.”

And now McCain has the drama that he came to Washington to capitalize on. Now, he can either emerge as the savior of the suddenly broken compromise by winning a few concessions and coaxing enough House Republicans into backing it. Or he could simply declare himself the face of bailout opposition and team up with the House G.O.P. (and a few Republican senators, like Shelby) to fight a compromise plan. (Whether they’d succeed in stopping the bailout is almost immaterial; McCain’s opposition would be aimed at capitalizing on popular sentiment against the bailout, something that is not difficult to foment.)

As the sun set Thursday, Obama was still promising to show up at Friday’s debate, and organizers still said it was on. (They also announced that the foreign-policy-only format would be tweaked, and that moderator Jim Lehrer would ask questions about the financial crisis.) McCain had yet to say whether he’d attend – although it’s tough to see him skipping it, for a variety of reasons.

But by helping to manufacture a fight and blowing up (maybe temporarily, maybe permanently) a bailout deal, McCain succeeded in creating a role for himself in Congressional negotiations that he hadn’t seemed remotely interested in all week. This may still blow up on him, but now he has the chance to paint himself as a hero – which is more than he could say when he arrived in Washington on Thursday.

How John McCain Destroyed a Compromise to Save His Skin