Oh, the Drama! McCain in the Theater of the Absurd

  • Share
  • Read Later
Spencer Platt / Getty

John McCain at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) September 24, 2008 in New York City.

If you missed the news this week, you didn't miss all that much. The stock market threatened to crash, but didn't. John McCain threatened to skip the presidential debate unless members of Congress approved a huge financial bailout, but they didn't, so he didn't. The debate went on; the candidates stayed on message; the pundits all agreed that it wasn't a "game-changer." You did miss the largest bank failure in American history, not to mention a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry, but that's chump change these days, right? You might not have heard that investment banks are now officially extinct, but basically the economy is on the same precipice it was on last week.

What you did miss was an amazing week of political theater, starring the frenetic, operatic, borderline erratic McCain, the former fighter pilot who seems to have found his calling as a kamikaze politician. He might not win the election — another thing you missed this week was Barack Obama pulling ahead in the polls — but when it's over he's a shoo-in for a show on TNT. RuPaul doesn't know drama like McCain knows drama.

After spending most of last week walking back his observation that the fundamentals of the economy were sound, McCain suddenly cut short his debate prep on Wednesday to announce he was "suspending" his campaign to fly back to Washington to rescue the Wall Street bailout negotiations, although he didn't seem to suspend much except for an interview with an irate David Letterman, and he didn't fly back to Washington until he had finished a political meeting with the bepearled former Hillary Clinton supporter Lynn Forester de Rothschild and a bunch of network interviews and a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City on Thursday, which, as astute political observers noted, was the day after Wednesday. What's more, the Wall Street bailout negotiations seemed to be progressing pretty well without him; Democratic leaders who had trashed the Bush administration's initial $700 billion proposal had won concessions on transparency and taxpayer protections, and key senators from both parties were saying a deal was close. McCain and Obama had outlined similar goals for the package, and Obama had called McCain to discuss a joint statement Wednesday morning. Also, President Bush had made a prime-time speech calling for consensus, but we missed it, and we were here this week. Well, you probably would have missed it, too.

But then McCain made his surprise announcement that the financial crisis was more important than politics, which was why he had to drag the entire circus of presidential politics into the middle of the delicate negotiations. Which seemed to blow up the moment he arrived in town. Conservative Republicans in the House had their own ideas for a bailout, including a suspension of capital-gains taxes, which made no sense as a response to a Wall Street free-fall — a capital-gains tax holiday would only encourage a bigger sell-off — but hey, conservative Republicans in the House really hate capital-gains taxes. In any case, at the White House meeting McCain had ginned up, he mostly kept quiet, but apparently left the impression he agreed with the recalcitraint Republicans. Sarah Palin had told Katie Couric that failing to take action could create another Great Depression — alas, you missed a great interview, which you can catch up on here — but McCain had never committed to support the Administration's plan. When asked, he had claimed he hadn't read it, even though it was only a few pages long.

And so: no deal.

On Friday, though, McCain realized it probably wasn't in his interest to let Obama have the stage to himself, so he announced that he was going to debate after all, since the stalled negotiations were now on track, although in fact the on-track negotiations were now stalled, but whatever. By the time he left Washington — some Democrats suggested this was no coincidence — the negotiations seemed to un-stall. The bailout now appears to be back on track for next week, and at the debate, McCain suggested that he supports it. The wacky events of the week went unmentioned, and McCain made a strong case for himself as the candidate of adult leadership. Which, if you've been paying attention to his campaign, is probably true if your idea of an adult is Terrell Owens, although Terrell Owens is at least capable of running in a straight line.

There is, of course, a serious point to all this mishigas. The last eight years may have been a geopolitical and economic disaster, but one thing they have not lacked is drama. They've been eight exhausting years, and when Obama talks about change, he's implicitly talking about giving Americans a break, a timeout from grand history. It's like those T-shirts during the primary: End the Drama — Vote Obama. McCain has tried to make a similar case in a different way, arguing that he's steady and experienced while Obama is risky and dangerous. That case can get lost in his roller-coaster campaign.

So now you're up to speed. Oh, one more thing: North Korea is restarting its nuclear program. These days, history doesn't seem to take many breaks.