The presidential campaign was swept back into the tide of the global financial crisis Monday, as the House of Representatives voted down the legislation that both presidential candidates suggested would save the day.
Reluctant Republicans ignored Sen. John McCain, undermining the Republican presidential nominee’s efforts to cast himself as a problem-solving legislative leader. But the collapse of that bailout also revealed the weakness of Sen. Barack Obama’s ally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who waved the presidential candidates away from Washington but could not deliver enough votes Monday to pass the bill. Still, it was the House Republicans, whose support McCain had returned to Washington to seek, who drove a stake through the bill’s heart: Two-thirds of the Republicans voted against the bill; nearly two-thirds of the Democrats voted for it.
The failure to pass the measure, and the commensurate historic drop in stock prices around the world, overshadowed the presidential campaign, as it has for a week, and swamped McCain’s attempts to turn the conversation toward a more general argument about taxes and spending. The election remains squarely situated on the economy, turf on which polls suggest McCain is far less trusted than Obama.
On Monday, Obama’s campaign again linked the crisis to Republican misrule. Now, the bailout debate will consume the campaign at least until the House returns on Wednesday, and even the much-anticipated debate between vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Sarah Palin on Thursday may not be enough to change the country’s focus.
“McCain’s decision to come back to the D.C. will have no impact on this race — he’s losing ground because of the economy, not because of his decision to come back,” said Charlie Cook, founder of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Now, though, the stakes in Washington are even higher for McCain, who has made the House Republican tally a measure of his own leadership qualities. He could again attempt to deliver what he tried, and failed, to serve up this week: Republican votes.
His campaign’s first move Monday, though, was to blame Obama for the collapse of talks.
“Barack Obama failed to lead, phoned it in, attacked John McCain and refused to even say if he supported the final bill,” said McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, echoing House Republicans in blaming the outcome in part on a “partisan” speech by Pelosi.
“This bill failed because Barack Obama and the Democrats put politics ahead of country,” he said.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton responded by pointing to the tone of the McCain statement.
“This is a moment of national crisis, and today’s inaction in Congress as well as the angry and hyperpartisan statement released by the McCain campaign are exactly why the American people are disgusted with Washington,” he said, calling for bipartisanship and blaming “an era of greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street and Washington.”
Obama’s aides also circulated McCain aide Steve Schmidt’s premature boast Sunday on “Meet the Press” that McCain had brought House Republicans around to the bill.
“What Sen. McCain was able to do was to help bring all of the parties to the table, including the House Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass this,” Schmidt said.
Obama himself, meanwhile, urged calm.
“There are going to be some bumps and trials and tribulations and ups and downs before we get this rescue package done,” he told reporters in Colorado. “It is important for the American public and for the markets to stay calm, because things are never smooth in Congress, and to understand that it will get done.”
Speaking to reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday afternoon in what he called “an hour of crisis,” McCain reiterated that the chalenges facing the economy could have a “grave impact” if lawmakers do not pass the legislation promptly.
“Now is not the time to fix the blame,” McCain said. “It’s time to fix the problem.”
According to his campaign schedule Monday, McCain was expected to head back to Washington on Tuesday afternoon and will be there “as needed” to continue talks on Wednesday. He was scheduled to leave Washington on Wednesday afternoon for a fundraiser in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, neither candidate appears to have fully grappled with the force that brought the House bill down: its deep unpopularity. Many of the “no” voters are members of both parties facing tough reelection campaigns, and many challengers announced they would vote no in the hope of drawing a contrast with a threatened incumbent. The two presidential candidates have signaled they would support a compromise, though neither formally signed on to the House bill.
“This is something that all of us will swallow hard and go forward with,” McCain said.
Obama had kept his support more vague, but in prepared remarks Monday — which Obama’s campaign released but scrapped after the bill went down — Obama was slated to say the parties “have agreed on an emergency rescue plan that is our best and only way to prevent an economic catastrophe.”
Now each appears to be looking over his shoulder at the other, neither wanting to embrace the bill too closely — which may guarantee that neither can effectively use it against the other over the ensuing weeks.
“Overall, I think the bailout is a nonissue for Obama and McCain — because they are both going to vote for it,” said Howard Wolfson, a former strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton. “To the extent that voters are angry about that, they cancel each other out.”