'A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week." That was the verdict of a senior Republican operative. But he wasn't talking about the meltdown on Wall Street. Or even the view from Main Street. Rather, he was referring to the McCain campaign which appeared to be in disarray after strategists fumbled their latest high-stakes gamble and forced their candidate into a humiliating climbdown from a precarious, if lofty, perch.
McCain's Attention Deficit Disorder campaign, as it has now been dubbed in Washington, has always operated as something of a fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants act that has got by on a series of Hail Mary passes. Fortune favours the brave, but it can be fickle with the perennially reckless. And, this time, McCain's compulsive urge to throw the cards up in the air when the going gets tough has backfired.
The most bizarre week since the election campaign began dovetailed with a $700bn game of political chicken that was unfolding in Washington. It turns out that a presidential campaign, a dead-duck president and a bitterly partisan congress is not an ideal combination when it comes to fixing the biggest financial meltdown since 1929.
McCain's game of high-stakes political poker started on Monday with polls showing the economic crisis had catapulted Obama into a nine-point lead. A McCain source said there was a 'heated' discussion about how to get McCain out front on the issue. Cracks first started to show when McCain, who had vacillated the previous week on what course should be taken, or whether there was indeed a crisis, claimed during a rally in Pennsylvania that he had read the Paulson document and supported his plan to buy up distressed assets from the major financial firms to avert a massive economic slowdown.
On Tuesday in Ohio, he appeared to contradict himself, saying he hadn't had a chance to read it. This admission sparked criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, who acidly pointed out that the document was a mere two-and-a-half pages.
At 8.30am on Wednesday the game changed dramatically when Obama called McCain. According to his spokesman, he was proposing the two candidates put out a joint statement agreeing to basic principles to protect taxpayers and pledging to keep the negotiations above the presidential political fray. He was told McCain wasn't available.
A plan is hatched
The McCain camp, sensing Obama was about to steal their economic thunder again, went into another huddle. When McCain finally returned Obama's call six hours later, a plan had been hatched. Accounts of the conversation differ, but one thing is clear: when McCain went before the cameras minutes later and declared he was suspending his campaign, returning to Washington and seeking to postpone Friday night's debate, the Obama camp was blindsided.
And furious. The clear intention was to leave Obama looking flatfooted as McCain charged to Washington to save the American people from... well no one is quite clear from what.
The fear in the Obama camp was that, like Sarah Palin's selection as running mate, McCain's move was so bold, so audacious, it just might work. "There was no doubt in our mind that whoever got out front on this one would win in November. For the American people, this is the dealmaker," an Obama source said.
The McCain plan was that Obama would be twiddling his thumbs down in Mississippi while McCain lead the charge to save Wall Street and single-handedly pulled the American economy back from the brink. The story would become about Obama's no-show in Washington, rather than McCain's no-show in Mississippi.
Even as McCain declared it would be inappropriate to debate with Obama until the financial crisis was resolved, his grandstanding was the subject of some ridicule in GOP circles. "You can read it as significant that there was no rally around [McCain] on this," a Republican source said.
Sensing McCain's Superman stunt was wobbly from the start, the Obama camp decided to hold its nerve. Obama went on TV to insist the debate should proceed. An American president, he reasoned, should be able to walk and chew gum.
Despite his declaration, by Wednesday evening there was no sign that McCain's campaign had been suspended. Surrogates were still dissing Obama on the news channels and the networks. A McCain spokeswoman confirmed no fundraisers had been cancelled. Asked why attack ads were still airing, she told the Sunday Tribune it took time to cancel them, but declined to say if any steps had been taken to do so. On Thursday morning, McCain was still making appearances in New York, including an address at the Clinton Global Initiative Summit.
And it seemed that in Washington, congress was managing very well without him, that his intervention was surplus to requirements. More than that, Republicans and Democrats involved in the negotiations publicly suggested, as Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd put it, he keep the presidential cameras and the klieg lights out of the negotiating room. A deal was imminent, but the negotiations were delicate, House leader Nancy Pelosi warned.
A lifeline from Bush
At this point, Bush threw McCain something of a lifeline by summoning him and Obama to a White House meeting on Thursday. According to Dodd, McCain spoke on just one occasion for less than one minute during the entire White House meeting and "said nothing of substance whatsoever". Obama's contribution was also short and surplus to requirements.
Despite, or because of McCain's presence, depending on who you talk to – around the time of the meeting things came unglued. Republican senator Richard Shelby, a member of the banking committee, stormed out of the White House and told stunned reporters he wouldn't support the Paulson bill. Then a slew of combustible House Republicans, led by Eric Cantor and Michael Pense, got in on the act, warning they would scupper any bailout deal that used taxpayers' money.
Suddenly an alternative plan was proferred, a plan that proposed that the financial companies buy insurance from the federal government instead of accepting a bailout. Meanwhile, McCain took a roasting from Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid for failing to show leadership. "I have asked Senator McCain where he stands. It seems the only place he stands is in front of a camera," he thundered.
"All I know," Chris Dodd said, somewhat mischeviously, "is that we had the framework for a deal in place and then John McCain shows up and suddenly we have no deal."
He added that whatever about McCain having scanned the two-page proposal before the White House meeting, he hadn't even looked at the more detailed 44-page bailout proposal that had been authored by the Banking Committee. It's hard to broker a deal if you don't know what's on the table.
As the talks descended into mayhem and recrimination, it became clear there would be no resolution before the weekend. Suddenly, McCain faced another dilemma. He had pledged not to leave Washington until he had whipped a deal into place. But now there was nothing to be done; he had failed to get Republicans to unite, and he wasn't even sure if he supported Paulson's proposal. Suddenly, the best option was to get the heck out of Dodge. But that would mean going to Mississippi. And eating a lot of humble pie. And looking less like a leader than a mildly unstable political stuntman. And adding insult to injury, Obama was in classic 'I told you so' mode, telling reporters how he had advised against injecting presidential politics into the negotiations.
The whole episode left even conservatives admitting the McCain campaign looked erratic, a bit foolish and with no apparent direction or guiding principle. The Obama camp gleefully fired off a quote from Craig Shirley, a former McCain adviser, to reporters. "It just proves his campaign is governed by tactics and not ideology," Shirley said. "In the end, he blinked and Obama did not. The 'steady hand in a storm' argument looks now to more favour Obama, not McCain." Shirley added: "My guess is that plasma units are rushing to the McCain campaign as we speak to replace the blood flowing there from the fights among the staff."
McCain ignored the first rule of high-stakes summitry: before squandering credibility, make sure you can deliver. "It was a rescue plan for McCain, not a rescue plan for America," Frank observed. In the end, neither one got the bailout it sought.