By DeWayne Wickham
The most important question that hangs over Sen. John McCain’s surprise decision to briefly suspend his campaign and thrust himself into the center of congressional efforts to negotiate a plan to bailout the U.S. financial markets is one of judgment.
During his unsuccessful 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, McCain said of the Senate Ethics Committee’s findings on his involvement in the “Keating Five” savings and loan scandal that cost American taxpayers $2.6 billion: “I was judged guilty of poor judgment…it will be on my tombstone and deservedly so.”
Should these words also be used to explain McCain’s snap decision Wednesday to put his campaign’s activities on hold so that he could return to the nation’s capital and insert himself into the search for a solution to this nation’s biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression? Was it an act of political courage or brinksmanship for him to seek such a visible role in the creation of a $700 billion bailout that could come back to haunt its political backers?
McCain, whose “Country First” campaign claims to put love of country ahead of political gain, said it was time to set politics aside and tackle this problem, which if not addressed could have serious ripple effects around the world.
"I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time," he said of the rescue bill under consideration when he suspended his campaign.
As the GOP presidential candidate, McCain certainly needed to say something about this financial crisis, the remnants of which the next president will inherit. But it was a big gamble for him to attempt to broker a solution in the middle of his White House campaign.
In urging President Bush to invite him and Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, to the White House to discuss the matter, McCain has taken on a share of the ownership of this financial crisis. While he, of course, hopes that voters will give him high marks for his quick response to this problem, McCain also now stands to shoulder a good bit of the blame if the bailout fails to produce the desired results.
Risk taking of this sort is what McCain did when he tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential candidate. Far from the most qualified person for the job, she must have seemed to him to be the best political choice. In picking Palin, McCain strengthened his appeal to his party’s Christian conservative base – and made a measureable gain among white women for his White House campaign.
But as Palin has hit some rough spots in interviews with ABC News anchor Charles Gibson and CBS News anchor Katie Couric, McCain’s selection of her is looking more and more like a bad decision. When she is subjected to tough questions, Palin sounds like the national politics and foreign affairs novice that her resume suggests she is. When the McCain campaign severely limits press access to Palin – as it has done – it makes his selection look like a bad call.
Now, McCain puts a spotlight again on his judgment. If he succeeds in forcing into the bailout bill many of the concessions that he, and others, demand, McCain could reap some big political benefits – given that a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that voters preferred Obama’s ideas on the economy over those of McCain by 46 percent to 32 percent.
If McCain’s attempt to shape the bailout succeeds, it may propel him into the White House. But if it proves to be another case of bad judgment, it will render him a historical footnote – and make bad judgment an indelible part of his political epitaph.