Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
In politics, actions speak louder than words, and inaction sometimes speaks even louder. With John McCain leaving the campaign trail to go to Washington to join the negotiations over the Paulson bailout bill, there’s a fair debate about exactly how important his presence there is, as I will discuss below. But judging by the actions of everyone involved, there’s no doubt that even his own Democratic colleagues recognize that Barack Obama is completely irrelevant to the process.As I noted yesterday, nobody really wants to support the bailout, but the White House and many in both parties on Capitol Hill feel it’s necessary, and will back it if and only if a consensus bipartisan deal can be put together. John McCain, of course, has made a career in Washington of being the man in the middle who holds the key to precisely such sorts of bipartisan compromises.
The Democrats’ Congressional leadership has zigzagged repeatedly on whether they want or need that help in building a consensus. Wednesday morning, we were hearing that Harry Reid was alternately begging for McCain’s help and claiming he already had it to press Republicans unhappy with the deal into supporting it:
Media reports indicate congressional Democrats and Republicans alike are anxiously looking to Sen. John McCain for cues on his stance on the financial bailout package. Stories suggest the GOP nominee’s stance on the legislation could prove decisive to its passage. ABC World News, for example, reported McCain “may hold the fate of the $700 billion bailout proposal in his hands. Even with Vice President Dick Cheney lobbying hard for the bill today, top congressional Republicans say if McCain does not support the bill, it will likely die” and “Democratic leaders have told the White House a deal without McCain on board will mean no sale. They say they fear McCain will, quote, ‘demagogue’ the bill and Democrats on the campaign trail.” Roll Call adds, “According to a Democratic aide familiar with the discussions,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Treasury Secretary Paulson “this week that ‘if McCain didn’t come out for this thing and come out for it quickly, it was going to begin bleeding Republican votes.’ Democrats ‘have a very real concern that opposition [from McCain] is going to drive away potential Republican votes,’ this aide said.”However, there are conflicting signs in the media on the level of McCain’s support for the package. The AP reported McCain “hinted he might vote against” the bill yesterday, calling the price tag “staggering.” However, The Hill reports Reid “announced” that McCain would support the package, saying last night, “I got some good news in the last hour or so … it appears that Sen. McCain is going to come out for this.”
McCain at this point was in the midst of negotiating with Obama a bland joint statement of the need for bipartisan consensus, without saying what it was they wanted consensus on. McCain had, shortly before the announcement of the Paulson plan last week, released his own bailout framework on Thursday the 19th (see here and here), which appeared to lean more in the direction of loans to shaky companies rather than purchases of their inventory, but hadn’t firmly committed himself on the deal still being worked out between the White House and the Hill Democrats. But then Reid’s call for help was echoed by a summons by Paulson, relayed through Lindsey Graham, that McCain’s aid was needed:
Paulson then called, according to my sources, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is very close to John McCain, and told him: you’ve got to get the people in the McCain campaign, you’ve got to convince John McCain to give these Republicans some political cover. If you don’t do that, this whole bailout plan is going to fail. So that’s how, McCain, apparently, became involved.
That’s the point at which McCain decided to “suspend” his campaign and return to Washington, even arguing that Friday night’s debate in Mississippi should be postponed so as not to interfere with the negotiations in DC. After Obama refused to follow suit, Hill Democrats hastily scrambled to downplay McCain’s importance. Barney Frank sneered that “McCain is Andy Kaufman in his Mighty Mouse costume – ‘Here I Come to Save the Day,'” while Reid reversed course and said that neither McCain nor Obama would be helpful:
[I]t would not be helpful at this time to have them come back during these negotiations and risk injecting presidential politics into this process or distract important talks about the future of our nation’s economy. If that changes, we will call upon them. We need leadership; not a campaign photo op.
Eventually President Bush invited both McCain and Obama to a joint meeting with both parties’ Congressional leadership at the White House. The Democrats’ insistence on McCain’s unimportance didn’t last any longer than Reid’s original statement. Congressional Quarterly today reported that
McCain’s unilateral decision to break off his campaign and return to Washington to push for action on a rescue plan scrambled the political world Wednesday but by Thursday was seen by some Democrats as a way to potentially help line up Republicans behind the final proposal.
Reid himself announced:
With the economic news only getting worse each day, I call on the President, Senator McCain and Congressional Republicans to join us to quickly get this done for American families.
In other words, Reid recognizes the basic reality: McCain is a player in this debate and needs to be a part of any resolution.
But what about Obama? In contrast to McCain’s plan, Obama had released lists of general principles on the crisis, but no detailed plan. Obama told the press Wednesday that
what I’ve told the leadership in Congress is that, if I can be helpful, then I am prepared to be anywhere, anytime.
Neither Reid nor Pelosi has called for Obama to do anything; there has been no groundswell among Hill Democrats for Obama to get involved, and so far as I can tell, nobody is much discussing whether the plan being worked out does or does not satisfy Obama’s “principles” or whether Obama’s ultimate support or opposition will affect how they vote. And Beldar explains why that silence says everything about what Obama’s own colleagues think of his usefulness in a crisis:
What’s already abundantly clear in this crisis…without the need for any hindsight, is that Barack Obama has failed to lead. Indeed, when the crisis engulfed them, those who’ve had the best first-hand opportunity since January 2005 to watch him try to do his job – his fellow senators, even the leaders of his own party who mouth the words about him being “the next President of the United States” and the hope of a new generation – didn’t call a halt to everything and send out a plea for his personal presence in Washington. Their actions and in particular, this inaction, shows that they know in their hearts that Obama is no real leader. They know he’s simply a well-cut, slick, but empty suit onto which the trappings of leadership have been projected. And when it comes to putting their own careers, their own modest places in history, on the line, they certainly didn’t look to him for guidance. The only reason for Obama’s abrupt 180-degree pivot today was to provide his campaign and his party with a fig leaf: Now they can pretend that both his and McCain’s presence and participation in Washington were essential to the striking of any deal. To do otherwise would be to cede the election to McCain outright.Nevertheless: Except for the sole purpose of maintaining his campaign’s dignity, Barack Obama is today the single most dispensable member of Congress.
Oh, well. At least they will get their gold coins with Obama’s likeness on them. That’s undoubtedly worth more than his leadership or his ideas.