Since last weekend, it’s been clear that John McCain was itching to use the congressional negotiations over the Bush administration’s Wall Street bailout plan to create a dramatic, headline-grabbing moment that would prompt swing voters – many of whom have tuned McCain and the Republican Party out on the economy – to give him a second look. Now, with his announcement that he will "suspend" his campaign (and wants Friday night’s debate postponed) so that he can return to Washington to join the bailout deliberations, McCain has gone and created his moment. The question is whether it will resonate – or reek of transparent phoniness.
McCain’s declaration probably sounds much more dramatic than it actually is – which is sort of the point. A deal in Congress on a bailout – as opposed to a protracted legislative fight – seems much more likely now than a day or two ago. And negotiations between influential Democrats and Republicans have been underway all week, while McCain has campaigned. So McCain’s move may simply mean that he skips a day of campaign events, attracts immense media attention in Washington (more than he’d otherwise receive on the campaign trail), delivers a symbolic but inconsequential floor speech, and then votes – along with just about every senator – to ratify an agreement hashed out by players who have been far more intimately involved than McCain.
But the press, if the early reactions from the cable news channels are an indication, seems to be taking the bait. McCain’s "dramatic" move will dominate television news, talk radio, and – presumably – the front page of every newspaper tomorrow. Even if Barack Obama were to play the same game and "suspend" his candidacy as well, the headline has already been written – this was McCain’s move. (ABC News is currently quoting an unnamed Obama aide saying that "the debate is on.")
Not coincidentally, McCain’s move is perfectly designed to dovetail with his broader campaign theme of "Country first." He and his surrogates will undoubtedly refer to this moment for the rest of the campaign as a vivid illustration of McCain’s willingness to sacrifice his own political self-interest for the greater good of his country.
Never mind that he actually stands to reap better press from his "suspension" than from a typical day of campaigning. And that he has neatly changed the subject from a top aide’s link, which McCain denied, to Fannie Mae.
If and when a compromise bailout bill is agreed to, McCain will claim credit for spurring the process along.
A not-unreasonable guess is that this strategy represents Plan B for McCain. Earlier this week, he dropped some very big hints that he was looking for a way to oppose the bailout in Congress – to dramatically lead the opposition on the floor and to position himself as the fearless defender of the taxpayer against the unholy alliance of Big Business and Washington Insiders. But ongoing negotiations in Congress – the ones that have been playing out while McCain has actively campaigned – have produced progress toward a compromise bill that may not face much opposition when it finally reaches the floor.
And a compromise bill with bipartisan support would make it tough for McCain to launch a campaign against the bill that wasn’t transparently cynical. So he went with Plan B.