Just what the heck is going on? Republican presidential contender John McCain threw a huge wrench into both the Presidential campaign and the delicate negotiations over the Treasury’s $700 billion financial rescue package on Wednesday afternoon, as he announced that he was suspending his campaign and called for a postponement of the scheduled debate this Friday with rival Barack Obama. Calling on Obama to join him in the national interest, he said in a brief news conference that conversations with lawmakers in Washington this morning have convinced him there is “no consensus” on legislation for a financial bail-out. In a bid to seize the initiative and bolster his image as a strong, bipartisan leader, McCain said he would head back to Washington to help with the negotiations.
But around Washington, there were plenty of other explanations — most of them having to do with McCain’s recent drop in the polls as the financial crisis has intensified the focus on the economy in the election. McCain’s post-convention momentum has lagged in the last two weeks; having succeeded with one “hail-mary” pass in nominating Sarah Palin, several analysts following the campaign said he needed another if he is to make up ground on Obama. “He’s trying to regain his footing and get his polling numbers back up,” said Daniel Clifton, DC policy analyst for Strategas Research Partners.
One well-connected lobbyist with close ties to the Republican party was even more blunt: “His whole presidential bid could rest on this,” he says. “If he succeeds, he looks like a hero. And if he doesn’t he looks like an interloper.”
That's certainly a risk. While the negotiations over the package are clearly contentious, few others in the Capitol viewed the situation as being as dire as McCain claimed. Earlier in the day, Capitol Hill staffers had said lawmakers expected to be able to send draft legislation to the floors of both chambers within a day or so. And most observers said that despite much public complaint from lawmakers about the Treasury deal, and a high level of public skepticism, Congress was likely to come to terms.
Moreover, the Obama campaign said the Illinois senator had approached McCain at about 8:30 this morning to propose a joint statement "outlining their shared principles and conditions for the Treasury proposal and urging Congress and the White House to act in a bipartisan manner to pass such a proposal." The campaign said McCain called back and agreed, and late in the afternoon the two sides issued a joint statement backing the need for an improved plan. "The plan that has been submitted to Congress by the Bush Administration is flawed, but the effort to protect the American economy must not fail," the statement read.
In response to McCain's call to suspend the campaign, Obama said he has made clear to congressional leaders that he will return to Washington if necessary. In a news conference he quickly called in Clearwater, Fla. soon after McCain spoke, Obama initially said that he wouldn't go back unless it would help accomplish the goal of passing effective legislation. Early in the evening Wednesday, the White House invited Senator McCain, Senator Obama and other Congressional leaders to a meeting on Thursday to help win a deal.
Because of the "delicate nature of the negotiations," Obama said, it's important that "we don't suddenly infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics." He also said there's no need to suspend his campaign, and that he speaks regularly with congressional leaders and administration officials, including Paulson, from the road. "Presidents have to deal with more than one thing at a time," Obama said.
The Illinois Senator also rejected McCain's call to postpone the debate. “This is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible for dealing with this mess,” Obama said.
As a result, many were skeptical of McCain's explanation for his move and looked for another reason. They didn't have to look far. While McCain got a bump up in the polls after his convention, that now seems to have faded. A series of polls in the last week or so have had him falling behind Obama; a Washington Post-ABC News poll out Wednesday showed Obama ahead 52 percent to 43 percent. That may be at the high end, but according to an aggregation of recent polls by the site www.fivethirtyeight.com, Obama is now ahead by 50.2% to McCain's 48%. The race is now back to where it was before the conventions, with Obama appearing to hold a small, but significant lead.
That turn appears to have happened largely due to the increased worries over the economy, a ground on which Obama has always been favored. Voters seem to be concluding that Obama and the Democrats may be better equiped to handle the economy and its woes.
Part of that is the fault of the campaign -- including gaffes such as McCain's statement as the crisis accentuated that the economy was essentially sound, and his close association with former Senator Phil Gramm, a champion of deregulation who has derided those who complain about the economy as "whiners." But the deepening financial problems also have reminded voters of what they didn't like about Republican economic policies in recent year. The combination has left McCain lagging Obama five weeks from the election, and with the financial crisis raging, that's not a good place to be. Another well-connected Washington insider agrees that the move is designed win over voters by showcasing McCain's leadership. "He's got to get bold at this point; he's in trouble and he's got to do something to shake the race up."
In an emailed statement, McCain spokesman Taylor Griffin dismissed what he termed a "rather cynical" interpretation. "At a time when our nation faces a serious financial crises, we must put partisan politics aside and work together to do what’s best for the country," the statement read. "He is deeply concerned that the plan currently under consideration may not pass and we’re running out of time"
Moreover, in a pair of press events on Wednesday before the Arizona Senator made his announcement, both Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director and Bill McInturff, his chief pollster denied that McCain is falling behind on economic issues. McInturff dismissed the Washington Post-ABC News tally as an outlier, and argued that economic issues such as gas prices and taxes, where he says McCain has an advantage, will continue to weigh heavily with voters as economy anxiety has increased. And following a press lunch that took place barely two hours before McCain stunned Washington with his announcement, DuHaime told BusinessWeek that "we're very comfortable" with where we are in the polls. "Senator McCain has been around a lot of big decisions and a lot of big issues for many, many years," he added. "Voters understand that he’s got great credibility on these issues and that he’s very knowledgeable." So why call for a postponement of the Friday debate? Some believe that McCain may also have simply wanted to postpone that in a week when the economy would clearly be front and center. Although the debate was supposed to be about foreign policy, few doubted that it would have come to turn around to discussing the dollar and other economic issues surrounding the global credit crunch. That's turf on which Obama may be far more at ease. So even a delay could help McCain. As one analyst points out, "it's like being told that your final exam has been postponed a week. It will still happen, but you're much better off."
The question, of course is whether McCain's surprise move will work --either on the political front, or in helping bring about a deal on the Treasury plan. "Will it be productive?" asks Clifton. "We don't know." In a race already full of more twists and turns than anyone could have imagined, McCain has just sent it off in another completely unexpected direction.