Owning the failure

“I’ve never been afraid of stepping in to solve problems for the American people, and I’m not going to stop now,” McCain said of his involvement in the bailout plan. Then it got voted down.

In the closing moments of the presidential debate last Friday, John McCain said something that now seems particularly ironic. He told the folks at home that he’s ready to lead; in fact, “I’m ready to get at it right now.”

But the problem is that, in his eagerness to “get at it,” to demonstrate his alleged political leadership skills by riding to the rescue in the Wall Street crisis, he came up with nothing. He raised the bar on his own performance by touting himself as the ultimate high-stakes problem solver, and he wound up solving nothing. In his attempt to score political points for his candidacy, to show that he can indeed excel on the economic front, he wound up damaging himself politically.

Over the past five days, he has failed at every standard that he set for himself. He said he was suspending his campaign in order to return to


Did McCain fail to show leadership on the bailout plan?

Washington, where he would use his skills to work out a deal, and that he would not debate Barack Obama on Friday unless that deal was done. His people raised expectations that such a deal, thanks to his participation, would indeed be done; as spokeswoman Kimmie Lipscomb put it, “We’re optimistic that Senator McCain will bring House Republicans on board without driving other parties away, resulting in a successful deal for the American taxpayer.” But in the end there was no deal, so McCain simply ignored his own ultimatum and flew down to the debate.

Then, over the weekend, his people spread the word that a bipartisan deal was imminent anyway – thanks, of course, to McCain, who had presumably succeeded in wooing the recalcitrant House Republicans. Senior strategist Steve Schmidt, behaving as if the deal was done, took a veritable victory lap on Meet The Press: “What Senator McCain was able to do was to help bring all of the parties to the table, including the House Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass this.”

Then, yesterday morning, as the House prepared to vote on the bailout bill that had been cobbled together the previous evening, McCain did his own victory lap while on the stump in

Ohio . Apparently confident that the bill would soon pass, he wanted to remind everyone how he had flown to

Washington and worked his magic: “I’ve never been afraid of stepping in to solve problems for the American people, and I’m not going to stop now.”

Then the bailout bill got voted down – thanks largely to the fact that two-thirds of the House Republicans had refused to support it. Those would be the same people whom McCain had supposedly brought “to the table.”

The McCain people, while shoveling the eggs off their faces, knew exactly what to do with this inconvenient outcome. They blamed Obama, of course. They put out a midday statement: “Barack Obama failed to lead…This bill failed because Barack Obama and the Democrats put politics ahead of country.”

Hang on….Hadn’t nearly two-thirds of the House Democrats, plus the House Democratic leaders, just cast their votes in support of a bailout bill sought by President Bush and his treasury secretary? When a landslide majority of House Democrats agree to support a lame-duck Republican president whom they detest, is that not evidence of putting country ahead of politics?

No matter. We have already come to recognize that the basic McCain campaign message is as changeable as a maritime climate. Less than two hours after his flacks sought to play the blame game, McCain himself reverted to bipartisan mode and publicly declared, “Now is not the time to fix the blame.”

One can always argue – as McCain tried to do, as recently as yesterday morning – that Obama has exhibited a lack of leadership by declining to get down into the weeds of the frenetic congressional negotiations (although he did put out a statement this morning, offering guidelines for what comes next). And those who defend the House Republicans will no doubt try to fix the blame on Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose ill-timed attack yesterday on the GOP deregulation legacy apparently ticked off some of the chamber’s conservatives (although, if they really did vote no out of pique, that hardly qualifies as “country first” behavior).

But my point here is about McCain’s political leadership skills – or lack thereof. Others are making the same point, here and here.) Ever since the crisis began two weeks ago, he has been lurching wildly, and losing altitude with each gyration. Indeed, the latest nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll, released today, shows that Americans, by a 13-point margin, believe Obama can address the current financial woes better than McCain.

Ever the gambler, in this latest episode McCain shoved all his chips across the table without looking carefully at his cards. The House conservatives are a frustrated bunch; they’ve long been ticked off at Bush for a host of reasons (his “guest worker” immigration reform bill, his high court nomination of the ill-qualified Harriet Miers, his record budget deficits, among others), and at this point they couldn’t care less about bailing him out of the current economic crisis. How could McCain not recognize this fundamental political obstacle to success? Now he gets to own the failure.

Bottom line: A prospective leader shouldn’t raise public expectations without sufficient assurance that he can deliver. And coming up empty while in the midst of auditioning for the presidency is potentially deadly. It’s enough to make a swing voter wonder whether the fundamentals of his candidacy are strong.