The most shocking moment of Friday’s presidential debate wasn’t when Barack Obama mocked John McCain for refusing diplomatic contact with Spain or even when the candidates compared bracelets they had received on the campaign trail. For the most part, the candidates reiterated their well-known positions on Iraq, Afghanistan and taxes without much error. Instead, the most shocking part of Friday’s debate was how little the candidates talked about the massive economic bailout plan that fell apart on Thursday.
$700 billion was on the line to bail out our failing financial institutions Friday night, but the candidates instead decided to bicker over $18 billion in earmarks. Americans were expecting to see leadership from both candidates about the economic crisis, and they saw none. The debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy, but it was hard for many to concentrate on what was being said when something so big was being left out.
And while both candidates failed to appropriately address a pressing national issue at Friday’s debate, McCain’s response to the economic crisis has been especially disappointing. The senator’s decision to politicize the bailout last Wednesday by temporarily suspending his campaign, threatening to cancel the debate and then arriving in Washington to provide “leadership” was nothing if not counterproductive. While the move could have signaled an opportunity for progress, McCain arrived in Washington with little plan and almost no will to substantively lead on the issue. In the one meeting he had with the White House and members of Congress, he chose to remain silent until the very end of the conversation. Even then, he offered no direction. Worse, he tacitly allowed House Republicans to break ranks with other Republican leaders, leading to a breakdown in negotiations.
Compare that to a few hours before. In a moment of spectacular bipartisan cooperation, it appeared that Senate Republicans and Democrats were able to work with the White House and the Democratic Congress in developing the foundations of a bailout plan on which everyone could agree. This plan would have set important standards like the need for greater accountability and transparency.
Then McCain arrived. His entrance changed the delicate bipartisan negotiation into an opportunity for presidential posturing. Even worse, McCain was himself partially responsible for infighting within the Republican ranks.
With so much on the line, this crisis should not have been politicized. In the next few days, we hope we’ll have a bailout plan that preserves our financial institutions and markets while providing greater accountability, oversight and regulation. Until then, both candidates should either think of something substantive to say or stay away from the negotiation process.