Until Wednesday afternoon, when GOP presidential nominee John McCain announced that he was heading to Washington to work with congressional leaders and the Bushies to craft a better bailout bill, both McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama clearly had believed that the last place they wanted to be seen was in Washington.
More specifically, the last place McCain and Obama wanted to be seen was in the Senate, where they work. You see, the Senate, according to the latest CNN/Opinion Research poll, enjoys (if that's the word) a 22 percent approval rating, 78 percent disapproval. (The numbers for President Bush, by contrast, are 31/68 approval/disapproval.)
The Senate has done much to deserve its sorry reputation. Until McCain's announcement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed inclined to support the $700 billion bailout bill -- provided Democrats could lard it with their own goodies -- but only if McCain (and other Republicans) would support the package and provide the Dems with political cover.
"I got some good news in the last hour or so ... it appears that Sen. McCain is going to come out for this," Reid announced Tuesday evening.
Then Wednesday, after it appeared doubtful President Bush would find the GOP support his plan needed, McCain announced he would come to Washington because, "I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time."
Reid's office promptly released a statement that said, "We need leadership; not a campaign photo-op." So the bailout is worth spending $700 billion of other people's money -- but not worth McCain flying to Washington to broker a doable deal? Get the feeling Reid is completely out of touch?
I am no fan of this bailout package. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to inspire confidence when he opposed a limit to the pay and bonuses of the geniuses who drove their funds into the red. At $700 billion, the package is obscenely expensive. Worse, as the Washington Times reported, both the administration and Democrats had agreed to add consumer loans, possibly even credit-card debt, to the mix.
No wonder polls show that voters are to cool to the Bush bailout. If, however, McCain can broker a more fiscally responsible plan -- read one with a price tag about half of the original's size or less, and with a cap on executive pay -- he just might be able to broker a deal that can pass muster.
Washington solons seem convinced that a failure to act will result in the American marketplace seizing up. The Wall Street Journal editorial page -- which has long railed at bad business practices at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- has supported the Bush plan on the grounds that an influx of capital, deftly managed, could keep a "global panic" from devolving into a full-fledged economic crash. The American people deserve to hear that "despite 13 months of credit turmoil," the Journal editorialized, "our resilient economy is still standing; and that this $700 billion will be the best money Congress appropriates this year if it prevents a recession and crash."
Wednesday, McCain asked Obama to meet in Washington and agree to postpone Friday's scheduled presidential debate. Once again, McCain put the job of good governance ahead of pursuing his presidential campaign. Only after Bush asked Obama to come to Washington did Obama relent.
If a bailout package passes and the market rallies, McCain will be a hero. If there is no package and the market falters, Obama won't look so hot. If there is no package and the market does not falter, Obama wins -- as do American taxpayers. It is a breathtaking game of chicken -- on which the U.S. economy may or may not ride. Be it noted that in the thick of battle, Obama's idea of leadership was to refuse to postpone the scheduled Friday night debate. Until he could not say no, Obama's idea of leadership was to stay out of Washington, instead issuing a "joint statement" with McCain on what they'd like see in the package other leaders negotiate.