Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 25, 2008
By: Hilzoy

Compare And Contrast

Barack Obama on his response to the economic meltdown:

"We were getting phone calls from people in Washington and I think there were some on our staff that were thinking that maybe we should interject and respond in some way. My strong feeling was that this situation was of such seriousness that it was important not to chase the cameras. One of the advantages that we had was that I think we had been steady from the start. I had already called my economic advisors together. I had already put forward a clear set of principles that were in the process of being adopted. I had been talking to Paulson and Bernanke and the congressional leadership on a regular basis so it wasn't like I felt in any way that I was out of the loop. I felt like I was helping to shape the direction of this. And one of the things that I have become more and more convinced of during the course of this campaign is that in an environment like this one where people are really paying attention because they are worried and they are scared good policy will end up being good politics -- more than I think might have been true during boom times in the nineties when people were just feeling like it was sport, it was a game. "

Robert Draper on McCain's response:

"The meeting was to focus on how McCain should respond to the crisis -- but also, as one participant later told me, "to try to see this as a big-picture, leadership thing." As this participant recalled: "We presented McCain with three options. Continue offering principles from afar. A middle ground of engaging while still campaigning. Then the third option, of going all in. The consensus was that we could stay out or go in -- but that if we're going in, we should go in all the way. So the thinking was, do you man up and try to affect the outcome, or do you hold it at arm's length? And no, it was not an easy call."

Discussion carried on into the afternoon at the Morgan Library and Museum as McCain prepared for the first presidential debate. Schmidt pushed for going all in: suspending the campaign, recommending that the first debate be postponed, parachuting into Washington and forging a legislative solution to the financial crisis for which McCain could then claim credit. (...)

Schmidt evidently saw the financial crisis as a "true character" moment that would advance his candidate's narrative. But the story line did not go as scripted. "This has to be solved by Monday," Schmidt told reporters that Wednesday afternoon in late September, just after McCain concluded his lengthy meeting with his advisers and subsequently announced his decision to suspend his campaign and go to Washington. Belying a crisis situation, however, McCain didn't leave New York immediately. He spent Thursday morning at an event for the Clinton Global Initiative, the nonprofit foundation run by former President Bill Clinton. As McCain headed for Washington later that morning, he was sufficiently concerned about the situation that Schmidt felt compelled to reassure him. "Remember what President Clinton told you," Schmidt said, referring to advice Clinton had dispensed that morning: "If you do the right thing, it might be painful for a few days. But in the long run it will work out in your favor.""

What's interesting to me is that both candidates seem, on the surface at least, to have operated on the same principle: "good policy will end up being good politics", "If you do the right thing, (...) in the long run it will work out in your favor." The obvious next question is: OK, what is the right thing to do? And McCain got that one so spectacularly wrong that it's hard to imagine that he cared about it in the first place.

If a Presidential candidate truly wants to do the right thing in a situation like this, it seems to me that the best thing to do is not to talk about it, and not to do anything dramatic, but to work as hard as you can behind the scenes. Very few difficult policy decisions are improved by having Presidential politics injected into them, and this seemed unlikely to be one of the exceptions. McCain is not on any of the relevant committees, has no obvious expertise in finance, and, by all accounts, does not have the kind of standing in Congress that would let him rally members behind him. That means that it's not at all clear how his returning to DC would help at all, especially since he could just as easily have tried to round up support for whatever course of action he thought best by phone.

If McCain had actually asked himself what the right thing to do was, it's hard to see how he could have come up with the answer: suspending my campaign and heading to Washington. If he did think that that was the most helpful thing he could do under the circumstances, I'd have to seriously question both his judgment and his insight into his own capacities.

Steve Schmidt was right to see the crisis "as a 'true character' moment". It revealed a lot about McCain. For instance, it revealed that in the midst of the biggest economic crisis in decades, he was more concerned with looking like a leader than with acting like one, and more concerned with the politics of his own response than with doing the right thing. It also revealed that he doesn't think his own responses through, which is why he had to un-suspend his campaign so quickly.

But it's also revealing that when Steve Schmidt had to "reassure" him, he told McCain that he was doing the right thing. It was pretty obvious that that wasn't true: at any rate, a few questions about why this was the right thing to do would have made it clear that there was no reason at all to think that it was. It's interesting both that Schmidt tried to buck McCain up by appealing to his desire to think of himself as doing the right thing, and that he could count on McCain to accept that appeal to his vanity without subjecting it to scrutiny.

Decisions like this one reveal what matters to a person. People who care more about actually doing the right thing than about thinking that they do take the time to figure out what the right thing is. People who care more about their own self-image than about actually doing what's right, by contrast, have no reason to bother with that question. It seems to be important to John McCain to think of himself as an honorable person who does the right thing. But in this case at least, he didn't seem to care whether or not that thought was true.

Hilzoy 4:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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"I didn't decide to run for president to start a national crusade for the political reforms I believed in or to run a campaign as if it were some grand act of patriotism. In truth, I wanted to be president because it had become my ambition to be president. . . . In truth, I'd had the ambition for a long time."

John's actions when he suspended his campaign, speak to the fact that he wasn't acting out of some grand act of patriotism, but rather cold-as-steel ambition.

Country First. Yeah, right.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on October 25, 2008 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

The decision aside, the execution was horrible.

Firstly, he never explained why he would be there. If the president was willing to accept the grandstanding (tells you something), what is to make us think members of Congress who you'd assume took their jobs seriously would be.

Secondly, he continued every aspect of his campaign, other than scheduled appearances. Yet he did attended the function with Clinton arriving in Washington approx. 26 hours after the announcement.

Thirdly, (I believe he played a part in having Obama come to D.C. for the meeting with the president) he is spent no more time in Washington than his opponent who hadn't made a spectacle and made no more of an impact ultimately.

He wound up being the subject of Letterman's late night ire for weeks.

Embarrassing. His return appearance, embarrassing.

Posted by: ThatGuy on October 25, 2008 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds about right to me.

Posted by: Jassalasca Jape on October 25, 2008 at 6:04 PM | PERMALINK

One of the major developments in the democratic primary was Clinton being asked to prove her 35 yrs of experience claim. It was an embarrassment for her for weeks.

No one has questioned McCain about his supposed leadership and bipartisanship. During the final debate he touted his work in the senate referring to efforts with Feingold, Lieberman and Kennedy and Feingold and Lieberman, and Kennedy...

These are his three great accomplishments in the senate? Someone has to call him on this.

The immigration effort failed and everyone knew it would in a republican controlled congress - and he gets credit for bucking a racist party on this - legislation he wouldn't support today.

His finance reform has left plenty to be desired, as he exercises loopholes to get RNC support in smearing his opponent.

I have forgotten what his work with Lieberman included, but if memory serves me correct, if Obama doesn't get credit for his work with Lugar - this doesn't count either.

There isn't really any choice in this election.

Posted by: TBone on October 25, 2008 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

This is a wonderful analysis. It shows exactly what's wrong with John McCain as a potential president and points clearly to why we need to make sure Barack Obama gets to the White House. The clarity of mind and relative lack of ego involved in the way Barack thinks gives him the potential to become a great President. - Ted

Posted by: Ted Lehmann on October 25, 2008 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

Wouldn't the true "all-in" position have been to come out, both barrels blazing, _against_ the bailout? He couldn't have seriously thought he had anything to add in terms of making good policy. Given that, why not make a play for a difference-making political position, and don the mantle of the right-wing populist? It might agitate the banking interests, but it would have made a hell of a story: "I learned from my foolish handling of Charles Keating not to stand idly by while corrupt banks line their pockets with _your_ hard-earned money! To the barricades, my friends!" I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now, especially considering that they've tried this whole Joe The Plumber nonsense as their big Closing Argument.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on October 25, 2008 at 6:20 PM | PERMALINK

well the big story is coming down the pike, Bush is asking the DOJ to intervene in Ohio. looks like he's afraid of ending up in a stockade.

Posted by: grinning cat on October 25, 2008 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK

What TBone said: wonderfully insightful. Would that the press and the voting public were as capable of analyzing the candidates.

It's just a good thing that McCain helped them out by putting on his clown shoes and red rubber nose before heading to DC to work his special mavericky magic.

Posted by: Snarki, child of Loki on October 25, 2008 at 6:29 PM | PERMALINK

Tom Nicholson up top got it right.

McCain entered this horse race knowing it was his last chance to see if he could achieve an ambition. An ill-prepared-for ambition at that.

One would think that in the time between 2000 and now he might have learned something about economics, or shored up some other weakness, but no.

What does he do instead? He sells out to the right wing extremist base of the republican party. Once upon a time, they were agents of intolerance. Today, he hugs them as if they were his relatives.

The Presidency never was about policy and competence to McCain. Just as with Bush, there is no outline or skeletal structure of a system of governance to enact once in office for the benefit of most Americans. It is about winning. Pure and simple. He adopted what he thought was the behavior that would help him win. He has hired the same people who put Bush in the White House for the simple result of a WIN.

Our economy is swirling around the toilet bowl, and all McCain wants is to WIN. The rest of us and our futures be damned.

Posted by: jcricket on October 25, 2008 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

What's interesting to me is that both candidates seem, on the surface at least, to have operated on the same principle: "good policy will end up being good politics"

I have to disagree here. To me, the problem is that McCain doesn't think about policy very much at all.

The difference between the two is that Obama had a policy response, and McCain didn't. Obama was paying attention to the contours of the crisis, and it's clear he believed the Paulson plan as originally conceived wasn't as good as the Swedish plan (which is where we are now). He was pushing in a clear policy direction towards where Dodd/Frank were, moving in concert with Congress.

McCain, on the other hand, didn't appear to have a preferred policy. He didn't support or shut down the House Republican plan--even when he was directly asked. McCain didn't even seem to have a position on buying assets vs. buying equity! Then, in the last debate, he launched a LUDICROUS "let's buy the mortgages at face value from the banks" plan--one which he hadn't even gotten all his surrogates or his campaign on board with (his website was wrong, and his surrogates spent a day and a half arguing for a different plan).

McCain actually seems to believe his free market nonsense. He doesn't think he can affect the economy. He thought all that mattered here was the political response. Obama felt quite differently. That we had to get the right policy on this, or we were going back to 1929.

Big difference, and it really did capture the difference between them. It's not personality, it's POLICY that separates them.

Posted by: anonymiss on October 25, 2008 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

While I agree with the overall, you're missing and muddying some
important details.

First, it's unfair to compare the quotes from the two campaigns
like this. The McCain quote is describing the process of coming up
with a policy. The Obama quote is the policy itself. There was
absolutely a meeting in the Obama campaign where the strategists
tossed around ideas and whiteboarded and brainstormed and
argued. But we're not seeing into that.

The second problem, coming directory out of the first, is these sorts
of analyses tend to emphasize the dangerous Obama hagiography
which feels good now but look out later.

The important thing about him isn't that he magically always pulls the right
ideas out of his ass and is some sort of innately brilliant leader. The
important thing is when he sits down to exactly the same campaign strategy
meeting McCain had, he and the people he's surrounded himself with
are smart and experienced enough to hammer out the right path.

That's what lifts him so far above McCain.

Posted by: Alphonse on October 25, 2008 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK


Why are your extended blockquotes crapping out in the RSS feeds? Steve Benen's stuff displays correctly, whereas your posts stop indenting after the first quoted paragraph.

Sync up the HTML, please, I beg you.


Posted by: Ethan on October 25, 2008 at 7:03 PM | PERMALINK

Channel 7 News in Albuquerque just reported that the crowds at McCain's Albuquerque event today were "smaller than expected." Yesterday they were predicting about 3,000. So. If the McCain campaign tries to spin it higher, remember that.

Posted by: Varecia on October 25, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

This looks to me like a campaign that knows it's going down to a crashing defeat.

Posted by: Speed on October 25, 2008 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

I think his fatal mistake was not that he gambled his chances for victory on the economic crises, but that he continues to refuse to accept that he lost the bet. This suggests a grave character flaw in the man, a flaw that is perhaps close to being a great deficiency of honor.

Posted by: gregor on October 25, 2008 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

This is what I can't quite understand.

I can't understand how relatively normal - NOT "wing nuts" - can support McCain/Palin. I was reading the comments at the WAPO site on an article by Charles Krauthammer on why he still supports McCain.

Most of the letters, of course, called out Krauthammer on his endorsement, but many, quite a few in fact, were endorsing his endorsement. The writers all seemed to feel that McCain has what it takes to turn this country around. His "experience", his "judgement", etc were all noted as the reasons these individuals thought he should be president for the next four years (or until he dropped dead, I guess).

The reasoning in the letters were rather like the reasoning behind why most of us support Obama. So, I started thinking, how can anyone support McCain? And, if they do, are they complete non-thinkers?

Again, these weren't "wing-nuts". They just saw McCain as the right leader for the times.

(For the record, most stayed away from the Palin problem).

Posted by: phoebes in santa fe on October 25, 2008 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

"McCain is not on any of the relevant committees, has no obvious expertise in finance, and, by all accounts, does not have the kind of standing in Congress that would let him rally members behind him."

Yes, but is all that apparent to McCain? One would hope, even at this late date, that he is aware of which committees he sits on. But anyone running for President --- Obama not excepted --- must not only believe themselves capable of performing the most demanding job in the world, but also that they are worthy of the respect and deference due that position. Combine that with the political calculation involved --- e.g., if the Republican party and its candidate were seen as bringing about a resolution to this serious crisis, it would go a long way toward helping their electoral prospects, and vice versa --- and it seems to me entirely possible that McCain thought he could show up, have a few meetings, maybe knock a few heads together, and successfully put a Republican stamp on the solution.

If he had --- which requires, I grant, the presumption of an alternate reality in which the initial bailout bill wasn't a) terrible, b) quickly recognized as such and c) therefore vociferously opposed --- then he'd be in a much, much better position right now. Quite possibly even winning. It's not that the stunt was a bad move, necessarily; the stunt is incidental. It's the failure to comprehend the nature of the problem where the failure lies.

Posted by: D. on October 25, 2008 at 7:45 PM | PERMALINK

Alphonse, I think you are missing the point. The article did describe the process of developing a political strategy. The article said explicitly that Obama's team considered ways to make the crisis a political splash, but that Obama put the kibosh on it. The good policy-- one that his team didn't come up with on the fly but had been developing with information from Paulson on an ongoing basis-- turns out to have been good politics.

This post succinctly explains why Obama is a much better candidate than McCain. He places his trust in the truth and in good policies, where McCain tries desperately to score points in spite of or wholly ignoring truth or policies. His response to the economic crisis, his pick of Palin, his latching on to Joe the Plumber all speak to him trying to score political points instead of running an honorable campaign or thinking about how he will actually govern the nation.

I am so glad that McCain has run such a dishonorable campaign, because I honestly think the race would be much tighter if he had not resorted to lies, distractions, and character assassinations.

Posted by: Taritac on October 25, 2008 at 7:46 PM | PERMALINK

Phoebes 7:35

Folks who will vote for McCain aren't willing to look beneath his reptilian skin, for fear that he isn't a leader.

We need a leader, in the best sense of the word, for our country right now. Not someone who is used to gaming the system for decades.

While I don't profess to be any kind of expert on John, I do know that he isn't much of a critical thinker nor a world class leader. He's a man of rather small thoughts and thinks his status earns him the right to be our next POTUS.

To prove my point....his final campaign strategy is a full bore smear against Obama, hoping that the seeds of doubt enter into undecideds minds.

A man who spends more time harping about Ayers versus justifying why his health-tax on employer-based health insurance is a good deal doesn't deserve to be president.

He is a snake oil salesman. Not worthy of the presidency.

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on October 25, 2008 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

Tom@7.52 - I'm an early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama so I agree with all your points.

What I am asking is how other - seemingly - normal people can see in McCain what we see in Obama.

Posted by: phoebes in santa fe on October 25, 2008 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

@ TBone I was thinking the same thing as you with the "Tested " bullshit. Every time I hear McNasty say I've been tested and Barack hasn't. Tested with what asshole . What great world crisis tested you recently? Ever? New Rule! No one who interviews him and doesn't call him out on that bullshit is allowed to call himself a journalist.

Posted by: John R on October 25, 2008 at 8:00 PM | PERMALINK

ACORN and "voter fraud"

I know this is a bit off topic, maybe not, since it deals with the character of John McCain, but if anyone out there wants to get lying Republicans to put a sock in it, try a variation of this "bet" that was in a letter to the editor:

Dear Editor:

The recent brouhaha over allegations of voter fraud by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has given me an idea on how to cash in on right wing fairy tales. During a Presidential debate John McCain said ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history ... maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." Rush Limbaugh accused ACORN of vote fraud, calling them " filthy and [Obama's] corrupt ... bunch of leftist radicals" on his October 9th radio show.

Unfortunately, a portion of the American public- those who think Fox news tells it like it is- has swallowed this rotten fish whole. In fact ACORN was the victim- not the perpetrator- of fraud by persons ACORN hired to register new voters but who decided to include fictitious names to pad their lists submitted to registrars . But unless Mickey Mouse or the Dallas Cowboys actually show up to vote at precincts in Nevada (where the lists were submitted), not a single instance of vote fraud will occur. There were over 120 million votes cast in the 2004 Presidential election, and the closest States were still decided by far more than 1,000 votes, so without thousands of fake voters showing up at the polls on November 4th, the fabric of democracy is safe.

Here's my proposal to Senator McCain and Mr. Limbaugh: I'll pay you both $1,000 for every ACORN registered fake voter who shows up at the polls on November 4th if you will each pay me $1,000 per ACORN registered fake voter who doesn't show up to vote. And if the total number of ACORN registered fake voters who show up is under 10 for the whole United States, you pay me $1,000,000 for the difference between 10 and the number who show up. In this economy, I can really use the $20 million I'll make if McCain and Limbaugh put their money where their mouths have been.

Posted by: Goose on October 25, 2008 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

@ Phoebes in Santa Fe . We regret to inform you that Charles Krauthammer has been dead for several for several years. The image you see is an embalmed version. Ever see tales from the crypt See if you can ever look at him again without thinking of the Crypt Keeper


Posted by: John R on October 25, 2008 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

Well, both candidates signaled that they intend to massively flood the US domestic economy with cash, starting with the $700 billion that your representatives forced upon them.

So, what good does the cash do? Has anyone gotten an explanation from either of these bozos?

Labor doesn't want cash, they want everyone to adapt to the new realities of much more expensive resources.

Posted by: MattYoung on October 25, 2008 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

The sheer implausibility of what Hon. Sen. McCain claimed to be doing (suspending campaign, staying in DC and skipping debate if no solution is found) made me think along the lines of FlipYrWhig. I thought that he was considering a play to take advantage of the huge unpopularity of the bailout (I make not comment on the correctness of this here).

Another possibility that hasn't been discussed, and perhaps this is because it simple isn't true, is than Senator McCain heard the rumblings in the GOP House conference and needed to try to see if some consistent GOP line could be found that prevented the party from looking split, which would reflect negatively on him. This doesn't mean that Mr. McCain had any real idea of what he was going to do, but the motivation might have been less one of 'doing the right thing' and more of needing to see what side of the fence the party was going to take, and be on that side. The politics was so fluid that being close the the action was necessary because it the party had a schism while he was away touring Prioria, it would look like he was even more out of touch.

Posted by: jhm on October 25, 2008 at 8:18 PM | PERMALINK

Very good summary, Hilzoy. Thank you.

To those that wonder how anyone can ascribe the same traits we see in Obama to McCain, it is simply a matter of knowledge & beliefs. Some of my friends are staunch Republicans. When I come up with rebuttals to their arguments, they had never heard about them before. Turns out their primary source of news is Fox, et al. And they still believe Fox is "Fair & Balanced". Now most of these people are moderate Repubs, not wingnuts. But they still believe the liberal media/liars myth.

IOW. you & I believe if we hear it on Fox, it is probably a lie, & if in the MSM, probably slanted rightward. So we turn to blogs & google to help us sort it out. They don't. It's like the critical thinking skills they use so successfully in other areas of their life are turned off when it comes to politics.

Posted by: bob in fla on October 25, 2008 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

This pretty much sums up the two candidates on the whole issue of readiness.

Obama is a confident, intelligent leader who works with (and surrounds himself with) bright minds. He becomes well informed and makes a strong decision.

McCain is a fly by the seat-of-the-pants "leader" who doesn't have the good sense to surround himself with good minds. Consequently, his "decisions" are between which ones make him look best to voters. Nothing to do with true leadership or what's best for the country.

That's the difference. At the age of 47, Obama is a leader. At the age of 72, McCain isn't.

Posted by: Jim on October 25, 2008 at 10:01 PM | PERMALINK

This reminds of this quote of Obama's from Joe Klein's article in TIME earlier this week.

"I have to tell you, one of the benefits of running this 22-month gauntlet is that ... you start realizing that what seems important or clever or in need of some dramatic moment a lot of times just needs reflection and care. And I think that was an example of where my style at least worked."

It will be nice to have a President for a change who understands this and acts accordingly.

Posted by: tom.a on October 25, 2008 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

speed: This looks to me like a campaign that knows it's going down to a crashing defeat.

which means palin will declare she won a mandate!

Posted by: mr. irony on October 26, 2008 at 5:13 AM | PERMALINK

Somebody should note just one contrarian thing about McCain's bailout stunt: there is no evidence that he ever really considered opposing it. Just think what THOSE politics would have looked like.

If McCain was competently creating his position based entirely on politics, it's not hard to see him considering Bush's unpopularity and the rebellion among House Republicans, and saying -- screw it, nobody is gonna love this particular thing and lots of people will specifically hate it.

Plus by full-throated opposition McCain could have made everything worse -- politically, economically -- while credibly insisting that the fault lies with those who are trying an emergency fix that's no good. "Any jackass can kick down a shed, but you need a carpenter to build one." In the home stretch of the campaign, McCain would not have needed many specifics about what he'd do better, while Bush/Paulson/Wall Street/Fannie & Freddie/Dodd & Frank/Community Reinvestment Act is a very target-rich environment. Hell, if he'd done nothing but bitch about Goldman Sachs getting treated better than Lehman he could have won a week's worth of news cycles.

Considered purely as politics, opposing the deal was the smart play. He didn't do it.

I don't think it's cuz he and his campaign are stupid. I think it's cuz he bought, immediately and completely, the Bush/Paulson idea that SOMETHING had to be done right away.

Give him his due -- that impulse, at least, was patriotic.

Posted by: anonymous on October 26, 2008 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK



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