McCain's Shot at Leadership

Washington Matters

McCain's Shot at Leadership

John McCain has consistently billed himself as the guy who can work both sides of the aisle, break legislative gridlock and get things done in Washington. He probably couldn't have ordered up a better opportunity to demonstrate it than this financial crisis. But so far, he's blowing it.

McCain made a huge gotta-drop-everything-now show of rushing to Washington Thursday to help make sure a bipartisan rescue package is hammered together. But the thing is, the White House, Democratic leaders and Republican leaders in the Senate agreed on the principles of such a package without help from McCain or his Democratic foe, Barack Obama -- until House Republicans broke up the party at a White House meeting arranged by McCain.

The House Republicans don't like the idea of the government pumping $700 billion of taxpayer money into a package intended to keep Wall Street from going belly up. Neither does McCain. Neither, for that matter, does anybody else, except, of course, those being bailed out.

And this is where McCain's role is unclear -- and where he could make a difference. Democrats say McCain has bollixed everything up by encouraging and siding with the rebellious House members, who are pressing their drastically different plan. McCain says a real deal had never been reached and the House Republicans say they hope McCain can help produce a deal more to their liking. What is puzzling is that so far, it's the Bush administration that has been following the consensus-building course McCain has always advocated and says he advocates in this case -- working with both parties, making compromises and ending up with a broadly acceptable deal. And while McCain says he hopes for a compromise and agrees that reaching a deal quickly is critical to the health of the economy, he certainly seems to be carrying the water of a minority that is insisting that its own approach is better than everyone else's and that is threatening to walk away if it is not accommodated.

Leadership in a crisis means trying to get people from all sides to take risks together. When they agree that action is necessary, they give each other cover by moving and acting together. Why should House Democrats, for example, approve a package sought by Bush when his own party won't? This doesn't sound like the leadership McCain has advocated and promised. Or that he has demonstrated in the past.