How Mccain's Gambit Could Work

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SEPTEMBER 26, 2008

How Mccain's Gambit Could Work

Everybody here is saying McCain's bailout gambit was a failure. (When I offered the observation "It does seem to have gone badly" in a colleague's office this afternoon, I was guffawed out of the room on account of understatement.)

The whole thing definitely seems ridiculous to me. But here's the new spin on it that Minority Whip Roy Blunt just gave on CNN (transcribed approximately):

John McCain came down here and said, "Wait a second, I think the House Republicans are on the side of the taxpayers, and I'm with them." ... They [Democrats] can do this without us. They have the votes. And virtually all of my colleagues can go home to their constituents and explain what was wrong [with the bill] ...

To translate: McCain understood the anti-bailout-bill sentiment outside of Washington and then gave House Republicans the political backup to buck the pressure to compromise. In a vacuum, it's an appealing populist narrative, and in a vacuum I even think it works -- witness the success of the Republicans' "we understand what the country really wants, unlike you Democrat stuffed suits" posturing on oil drilling this summer.

It doesn't work if Democrats point out -- again and again and again -- the 180 degree turn this represents from McCain's original, anti-populist rationale for going to Washington: to support the compromise and to lend his expertise at bipartisan, smoke-filled-room negotiations, not to undermine them on behalf of "the taxpayers." McCain's motivational switcheroo -- and the reporting that he passed Bush's "summit" yesterday with Paulson in silence, obviously unsure what the hell he really wanted out of this whole damned thing -- ought to cement his reputation as a chaos-creating, erratic, back-and-forth decisionmaker. Barack Obama needs to hammer the contrast between McCain's Wednesday statements and his supporters' Friday spin home tonight. No Mr. High Road.

Update: Mike notices the same emerging GOP storyline, above, but recommends Obama de-engage rather than hammer. Honestly, the political dance on this has turned into such a speed jig it's hard for me to know what impression Obama ought to be giving off.

--Eve Fairbanks

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