I had intended to post two entries, one on the state of the national polls and the second regarding the sudden media firestorm regarding Sarah Palin. But events never seem to cooperate with my blogging intentions. Just when it appears that this election will revert to form, something unexpected happens. This time the unexpected took place in the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives. Contrary to expectations of both the Democratic leadership under House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Bush administration, a bipartisan coalition of legislators just voted to reject the $700 billion bailout/rescue bill. Based on the CNN report, fully 40% of Democrats and more than 60% of Republicans rejected the proposal. The final vote was 228 to 205, 13 votes short of what was needed to pass. The opposition from Republicans was expected, but the failure of the Democratic leadership to keep their troops in line was not. As my students from Congress know, the House rules are designed to empower the majority party, and that means the party leadership under Speaker Pelosi should never bring up a bill unless they have the votes to prevail. Evidently she thought she could withstand the expected defection of the Republicans, but miscalculated the strength of Democratic Party support.
I rarely venture into the area of punditry, but I will do so here because of what I wrote prior to Friday’s debate. Recall my advice to McCain then: that if he acted boldly he could spring a trap that would ensnare Obama and the Democratic leadership by portraying them as working hand in glove with the Bush administration to pass the bailout/rescue legislation. By taking the lead in opposing the bill, McCain could burnish his reputation as a maverick protecting small businessmen while putting Obama on the side of Bush as defenders of Wall St. and the status quo. After laying the groundwork for the trap, however, by suspending his campaign and rushing back to Washington, McCain then backed down, opting instead to take the high road by expressing support for a bipartisan approach to solving the crisis using the Bush plan as the working blueprint. He thus sent a mixed message regarding his intentions and further ceded the economy as a winning issue for Obama.
Admittedly, opposing the bailout bill seemed like a high-risk gambit – if it passed, he would be viewed as obstructionist and without influence. If it failed, the markets would be in turmoil. But that is the risk of leadership. And as it turns out, the bill didn’t pass. Given the opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, had McCain taken the bold strategy I advocated he might have sold himself as the voice of the bipartisan center. After laying the groundwork, he thus missed a golden opportunity to reshape the election narrative.
What about Obama? It’s unclear how much – if at all – this will hurt him. The assumption among all pundits I read was that he was on the right side of this issue; by backing the bailout bill, with conditions, he was making the smart move to be part of the solution to the nation’s credit crisis but in a way that protected the taxpayers’ interests. It was the politically safe route. On this view, see, for example, this Howard Fineman article. That claim is now in doubt. Nonetheless, my gut reaction is that although Obama expressed support for the legislation, in the end I don’t think he will be hurt too much by its failure to pass because the fallout will remind the public that we are in an economic crisis, and that works in his favor as the candidate of the “out” party. Had McCain exercised a countervailing leadership on this issue, he might have made this situation worse for Obama.
McCain may yet salvage something from this, politically speaking, but I suspect he won’t gain nearly as much as he would have by taking a firm lead in opposing the bill. To justify opposing the bill, he might have stressed two talking points: that the cost of this bill is more than what the nation has spent in the Iraq war to date, and that we had been told before that a government policy would, in the long run, pay for itself – and that was the justification for the invasion of Iraq. But he didn’t do either, and I think he will pay the price for failing to do so.
Of course, this entire policy debate is in a state of flux. It is unclear if the bailout bill is dead, to be replaced by the Republican House alternative, or whether it can be passed in revised form. McCain yet may inject himself into this debate. So, too, might Obama. But it is clear that most Republicans and many Democrats did not want to go back to their constituents in November having to defend a vote for this bill. Pelosi clearly miscalculated in assuming the Democrats were willing, some 45 days before going to the polls, to be portrayed as the party backing a huge spending bill. This also reminds us that presidents are, with rare exceptions, almost never in a position to impose their will on a Congress that has other ideas. It is a lesson both McCain and Obama should take to heart.