Yesterday, approaching midday, as the limousines waited outside, it seemed we were close to a consensus. Democrats and Republicans alike had voiced their concerns over the past week about the Bush bailout plan for Wall Street; and a bipartisan panel of Congressional leaders had met to address those concerns. Comments coming out of the presidential candidates over that time had seemed to provide another reason for cautious optimism -at least about the plan. Both McCain and Obama had spoken about the need to structure the bailout as a loan, or even an investment, with a real return due the American taxpayers. Both had voiced their disdain for the Wall Street greed that saw -even now- corporate leaders of failed businesses bonusing themselves out the door; so it seemed certain there would be agreement on cutting the strings on the golden parachutes and attaching some strings to the $700 billion bailout that had been proposed.
Barack Obama had expressed some bewilderment at McCain's announcement that he was suspending his presidential campaign (and potentially tonight's debate), but the Illinois senator's tone was basically conciliatory. (That's my read -watch for yourself). He spoke to the broader, more important, agreements that he thought existed, that implementing Bush's emergency measures responsibly was the task at hand and that the spirit of urgency shouldn't be used to advance more partisan policy objectives. He cited bankruptcy reform as an example of a Democratic policy priority -that might be a legitimate cause, but that should be debated carefully and not in crisis mode.
After a week of intense and candid negotiation, Representative Barney Frank, as well a number of Republican and Democratic Congressional negotiators, headed off to the White House wondering why they were having a meeting to resolve a logjam that didn't appear to exist. The framework for a deal seemed at hand. "But it's always good when I get to go to the White House anyway," he joked. That's where we were, or where we thought we were at midday: the framework for an agreement in place and a White House meeting scheduled to make a show of the bipartisan approach to our economic crisis. Then John McCain had a little sitdown with House GOP leader, John Boehner. And by the time the meeting was over we had reports of a counterproposal authored by Conservative House Republicans. Two key points of the proposal: first, rather than infuse the markets with the bailout money purchasing assets as proposed (the defibrillator approach), set the government up as an insurer and pay out over time while the failed companies retain control of their portfolios (the leave the juice running approach). Oh, and the other key point: suspending capital gains taxes and reworking the tax code to incentive the purchase of bad debt. What was that comment about partisan policy priorities?
By most accounts, Senator McCain offered little during the course of the White House meeting he had been central to arranging and he waited towards the end to announce this counter proposal. He was reportedly "non-commital about supporting it." Oh, yes and after the meeting he told NBC News,"we made progress." The only progress that's been made has been political. As the economy was souring, the candidate who had admitted the economy "wasn't his thing" was starting to fall in the polls. With one deft political slight of hand, announcing policy he doesn't even know whether he supports, John McCain now casts himself as running against the Congress, against Democrats and even against George Bush. A fairly preposterous idea, I grant you, one that should be challenged in an open debate. Oh, yeah ...that.