WASHINGTON -- One advantage of a crisis is the illumination it sheds on all the main figures of American politics -- like a strobe light on a dark dance floor, catching all involved in characteristic, sometimes embarrassing poses.
John McCain has been all manic, flailing energy. His first instinct was to blame Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for being too active and SEC Chairman Chris Cox for not being active enough. Confirming the worst Republican suspicions, McCain did not focus on the role of Barney Frank and other Democrats in encouraging Fannie Mae to run wild, and mentioned New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo as a possible financial savior. Then he suspended his campaign to rush to Washington for messy, indecisive negotiations and called for the cancellation of a debate that he promptly attended.
But in spite of his tendency to fling charges and symbolism, McCain ended up playing a responsible (though not decisive) role in bailout negotiations. White House officials credit him with listening to House Republican concerns -- making them feel more included in the process than Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had done -- while working for a deal from the middle. Democrats attempted to ambush McCain, at one point blaming him for blowing up a deal that did not exist. But McCain placed his political bet on consensus. When the stakes are highest, McCain still views himself as the centrist dealmaker, which belies Democratic charges of secret extremism.
In this crisis, McCain has lost some large political wagers. The House Republicans whom McCain had included and defended eventually undermined and betrayed him five weeks before a presidential election, with all their typical grace. But McCain's frantic search for broad strokes and memorable symbols is understandable. The natural state of the race has McCain behind Barack Obama, making boldness a political necessity. The problem is this: When such daring doesn't work out as planned, it confirms McCain's greatest political liability, a reputation for impulsiveness.
The strobe light on Barack Obama has revealed a man in elegant repose -- or else a man soundly asleep. Initially he waited for everyone else to reveal their positions before venturing his own. Obama remained in contact with Paulson. But White House officials report that Obama generally hung back -- providing just enough cover with his vague endorsement for Democrats to support the modified plan. Obama is a penny gambler, betting in the smallest possible increments -- gaining little credit for success while risking little blame for failure.