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.
The problem with this caution is that it is hard to distinguish from timidity, or even confusion. Obama, after all, has little experience in these matters. It is easier to hang back when you have nothing to offer. Hesitance can indicate an undeveloped worldview. Still, Obama may have calculated correctly that Americans are weary after the unrelenting strategic boldness of the Bush years. And Obama's reserve tends to emphasize his greatest political strength: an impression of calmness and stability.
But the largest figure revealed in the light of the financial crisis has been President Bush. Americans may be tired of strategic boldness, but Bush clearly is not. When Paulson and Bernanke came to the president in mid-September, warning of an imminent financial meltdown, Bush's reaction was typical. He told Paulson not to worry about the politics and to propose whatever was economically necessary. It would have been easier for the administration to produce symbolic, easily passable legislation. Bush chose to go to the root of the problem -- toxic debt in the financial system. The plan was not perfect, and later improved. But charges that it is somehow timid or irrelevant are absurd. Seven hundred billion dollars amounts to about 5 percent of all mortgage debt in America -- about one-third of all subprime debt.
Bush's ambition, bias toward action and indifference to political pressure are sometimes criticized. But his greatest failures -- such as the Katrina response and the initial strategy of the Iraq counterinsurgency campaign -- have come when he ignored those instincts. The troop surge resulted when he followed them. And Bush's economic ideology -- a belief in markets, combined with a recognition that intervention is sometimes necessary to make markets work -- seems well suited to the current crisis.
With months remaining in his term, Bush's influence is not what it once was. But if his rescue plan eventually passes, there will be reason for thanks that Bush, rather than McCain or Obama, is president at this moment -- even if few offer that thanks.