With just four days until the first presidential debate and just 42 days until the November 4 election, Senator John McCain is still feeling for his footing on the financial crisis that seems likely to consume the rest of the presidential campaign.
A McCain aide told reporters last night that the Republican nominee would distance himself from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s trillion-dollar bailout plan, saying it lacks “oversight.” And McCain in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday Night floated the name of Andrew Cuomo, the confrontational Democratic New York attorney general, as the chairman of a tough new Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Sunday night proposals were the latest in a series of attempts by McCain to draw a dramatic contrast between himself and President George W. Bush as the campaign appeared to shift decisively away from his chosen turf of culture wars and national security, and toward the economy. Obama, for his part, will have a final chance this week to duct tape McCain to the economic crisis and an unpopular president, and bury him in the flood of bad economic news.
But as McCain tries to regain his grip on the campaign narrative, and Obama adopts a more reserved posture his campaign hopes appears “presidential,” both men are struggling with their sheer irrelevance to the fast-moving wrangle between the White House, Congress, and the turbulent stock markets.
“The events are bigger than the candidates,” said Phil Singer, a former aide to Hillary Clinton.
The two candidates’ stances, though, reveal the degree to which this appears to offer Obama – who has regained his narrow lead in most national polls – a chance to pull away.
McCain has scheduled a series of attention-getting gestures: He has scheduled a round of meetings for his running mate, Sarah Palin, with foreign leaders at the United Nations. He’ll share a stage with Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. And he’s turning to a time-tested method of changing the storyline for a beleaguered presidential candidate: He plans to appear Wednesday on the Late Show with David Letterman.
“I have great respect for Secretary Paulson, but I am greatly concerned that the plan gives a single individual the unprecedented power to spend $1 trillion - trillion - dollars on the basis of not much more than ‘trust me,’” McCain will say Monday, according to an aide. “We will not solve a problem caused by poor oversight with a plan that has no oversight.”
As McCain has struggled to find his balance, Obama has been a steady, relatively low-key presence on the economic crisis. Where McCain offered his own rescue plan, Obama has demurred, saying he doesn’t want to meddle. Like McCain, he’s expressed a skepticism on the margins of the rescue plan. With other Democrats, he’ll push for it to include a domestic stimulus package, though it’s unclear how far he will stand with his party if negotiations turn into a partisan battle.
But he and his running mate, Joe Biden, sought to project a measured and steady hand Sunday, a deliberate contrast to McCain.
“There’s all kinds of ideas and Barack and I are putting together a plan,” Biden said in Sterling, Virg., Sunday. “You can’t do this haphazardly. It’s important to get done thoughtfully so we never repeat this again.”
McCain attacked Obama for having “declined to put forth a plan of his own” in a speech Sunday to a National Guard convention in Baltimore.
“At a time of crisis, when leadership is needed, Senator Obama has simply not provided it,” he said.
McCain’s own plan for a new institution to lead the bailout appears to have been entirely ignored in Washington.
Obama, meanwhile, has chosen targets of opportunity. His campaign attacked McCain in Michigan Sundy for owning Japanese and German cars despite bragging about buying American. And Obama seized on McCain’s suggestion, in an obscure actuarial magazine, that a move to free banking from state regulators ought to be emulated in the health care sector.
“Here’s the really scary part. Now this ‘Great Deregulator’ wants to turn his attention to health care,” Obama said in Charlotte, N.C. Sunday, quoting from the article.
“That’s right, John McCain says he wants to do for health care what Washington has done for banking.”
Obama will spend much of this week in Florida, preparing for Friday night’s debate in Oxford, Miss.
The bright spot for McCain this week, meanwhile, is likely to be Palin, who drew tens of thousands to a Florida rally Sunday. Images of her meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others, are sure to dominate the news this week.
But Palin was resolutely vague on the economy at Sunday’s massive rally at The Villages in central Florida. She offered general praise for small business and low taxes, and echoed McCain’s swipes at regulators, saying, “we don’t need a dozen agencies doing the job badly, we need the best agencies doing the job right.”
And she testified to the quality McCain has been seeking, with increasing urgency, to project: command of the economy. "Truly there is only man with the wisdom and experience to fix our economy and that man is John McCain,” Palin said.
Amie Parnes, Kenneth P. Vogel, and Carrie Budoff Brown contributed to this report.