It’s always something (or why candidates ignore me at their peril)

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.


  1. Now that the government is looking for an alternative economic bill, I feel that it would be a very advantageous time for one of the candidates to propose a new, alternative plan, either alone or with another Senator. If they were to propose a better plan that addressed some of the failings of the first one, they could demonstrate that they are ready to lead the country. That is also a high-risk act, though, because if the bill were to fail (either fail to be passed, or to fail at fixing the crisis), it would reflect very poorly on the candidate.

  2. Since it is an appropriations bill, I believe it has to originate in the House, so neither Senator really has an opportunity to introduce a bill himself. Obama or McCain present a bold new formulation of the bill, but they would have to team up with someone in the House and find a way to negotiate the legislative process there.

    It is also not that easy to come up with a bill of this magnitude even if you know what you are doing. The financial committees in both the House and Senate are the obvious places for such a bill to originate, although because things are in such disarray, either of the Senators could make the argument that a new approach is necessary.

    Nonetheless, I think that Professor Dickinson is correct in saying that Obama will probably continue to support the current bill because it is safe. Because the fundamentals of the election favor him, Obama does not need to be at the forefront of resolving this crisis. The risk is simply not worth it because the race looks good from his standpoint.

    Additionally, I doubt that McCain will make a second high-profile attempt to resolve the crisis either. His efforts last week do not appear to have changed a lot of minds in the House. Many involved in shaping the bill are already on record saying that the politicizing effect of the presence of both candidates were counter-productive. McCain took considerable risks coming to Washington in the first place. Because those efforts failed, I doubt he will try again under the same pretenses.

    Instead, I think we might see one or two amendments to the original bill that try to alleviate the qualms of either the left or the right (or both), and then a new vote, perhaps as early as tonight. But this crisis is a risky one for both candidates.

    As an aside, Professor Dickinson, I was wondering whether this financial crisis might be a perfect opportunity to discuss unilateral power and the presidency. I may be wrong, but it really seems like there has been very little negotiation and bargaining. Neustadt’s power paradigm continues to be obsolete; Bush has asked for what he wants and now he is going to get it without granting any concessions. (I suppose I could be similarly sarcastic about Bush’s “going public” over the last few days, but alas, cynicism only gets us so far….)

  3. I must admit that I am surprised that your blog is nonpartisan. I find that refreshing coming from a mostly liberal college campus in a very liberal leaning state. This parent is thankful that there is at least one professor teaching at Middlebury that can discuss the events in the House of Representatives yesterday and the associated presidential politics with virtually no partisan flavor. In fact, you may be the only person in the United States that has been able to do that.


  4. I venture into these waters with real trepidation — my overall take on all this aligns with Quentin Crisp’s suggestion that “politics is the art of making the inevitable appear to be a matter of wise human choice” — and assessing political strategy is as alien to my temperament as advanced physics. But I evidently can’t keep from noting that in your engaging zeal — which reads like heated sports commentary or someone who REALLY loves gambling in Las Vegas — I lack utterly any sense of what you think OUGHT to happen. Dimwitted as I am, I yearn for some sort of moral compass — what’s going to work? — what ought we to support? This may be like looking for milk in a hardware store (your blog appears to be about the amoral sport of politics, not its ‘good’ or ‘bad’ aims), but — well, I felt moved to make the comment.


  5. Professor,

    As an alumnus of Middlebury, class of 1995, I’m very happy to have found your blog (mentioned in my alumni email update). In agreement with the parent above, I’m pleasantly surprised to find it is, indeed, neutral – not something I often encountered when I was a student at Middlebury.

    Your commentary on the economic matter and the election is very helpful. Please let me know, if I support a particular candidate and wanted to get some of this advice to them in addition to some ideas of my own, how would I best accomplish that? Is there an organized way to make suggestions to campaigns? I have not been able to find one.

    I appreciate your commentary, look forward to more insight, and thank you for your advice on this matter.


  6. We’ll see in moments how the two candidates vote on this bill. I doubt that either will vote against it, particularly considering that Senator McCain, the more likely of the two to vote no, said in Friday’s debate that he was planning on (or, if I remember correctly, “hoping to”) vote in favor of the bailout. If he does vote against it, the Obama campaign will be sure to pounce on him for flip-flopping. Flip-flopping towards a position favored by the numerous citizens who disapprove the bill could in fact be an electoral advantage for McCain, but it is a risk I doubt he is willing to take.

    Stepping away from presidential politics, I fear that the Senate’s decision to vote on a revised plan before the House could backfire. Those who have taken a class with me may know of my distaste for Senator Reid, and I fear that this could be another one of his ill-conceived theatrical stunts aimed at intimidating the opposition (in this case the House, not the Senate Republicans), to vote with the Senate majority’s favored position. For another instance of failed theatricality, see Senator Reid’s decision to hold the Senate for an overnight session during the debate over military appropriations in the summer of 2007. My fear is that this move on the bailout package will be seen by House members as an instance of the Senate “talking down” towards towards the House. Particularly with many Senators mentioning the duty to vote in the best interest of the nation, even if it flies in opposition to voters who “do not understand the bill” (Diane Feinstein – yes, I am watching C-SPAN, and am a nerd, but am probably among peers), this provides Representatives with the opportunity to vote against the bill while emphasizing their status as wo/men of the people.

    Finally, with regards to Mark El-Deiry’s questions, you’re probably out of luck unless you know someone working for either campaign. The Obama campaign, at least, has a question/comment form on their website, but from my experience (wasn’t expecting anything different), posting a comment prompts nothing more than an automated response saying that the volume of mail makes it impossible for the candidate to respond to individual inquiries. My guess is that the McCain campaign is similar in this regard

  7. You write: Had McCain exercised a countervailing leadership on this issue, he may have made this situation worse for Obama.

    “May” is present tense. You want to say MIGHT.

    Had McCain done X, he MIGHT have made Y happen.

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