The immediate-term politics here are smart, but in the longer term it's a hell of a gamble: McCain has to be a legislator, and legislators don't get elected president.
This marks McCain's second "Hail Mary" pass, the first being the Sarah Palin selection.
In the immediate term, McCain takes the initiative here and looks statesmanlike, perhaps even presidential. And the move reinforces his "country first" message—critical in a campaign run on personality rather than issues (which is how his campaign manager has described it ... while accusing Barack Obama of being an egomaniac).
That's the reward. Next comes the risk.
First off, McCain's best conventional opportunity to knock off Barack was in Friday night's debate—foreign policy is supposed to be the Arizonan's great strength, so he is passing up an opportunity to show Obama for the callow appeaser that McCain seems to think he is.
More critically, when McCain returns to the Hill (the next vote he casts will be his first since April; Obama's last was in July), he marries the bailout plan, whatever its final form. Once he wades into the thick of the negotiations, promising to knock heads and work his bipartisan magic, he cannot then disavow himself from the final piece of legislation.
This only compounds a problem McCain already had wherein, as TNR's Noam Scheiber put it, "He either gets on board the Bush/Paulson plan, in which case he ties himself to a spectacularly unpopular administration. Or he derails the plan and makes a play for voters' economic hearts and minds, but ensures that the financial crisis remains topic A, making the political terrain about as unfavorable as it could be."
He's now upped the ante: If negotiations break down, it calls into question McCain's candidacy, which is premised on his ability to reach across party lines and get things done for the good of the country—I thought he could bring people together and get them to work things out . If a bill emerges from the legislative scrum that is unpopular but necessary, McCain owns it, at the risk of angering conservatives, who don't like the idea of government bailouts, and of average Americans, who view Wall Street as a vaguely alien land of fat cats who can bloody well take care of themselves.
The bailout is threatening to become an albatross: According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 31 percent of voters approve of the bailout plan, 33 percent disapprove, and 28 percent had no opinion. That's 61 percent either against or uncertain about the bailout. TV reports are starting to signal a hardening of opinion against a "bailout" (CNN's John King says that political consultants are advising their legislator clients to call it a rescue, not a bailout). It's a small, nonscientific sample, but we asked readers whether there should be a bailout at all, and comments are thus far 14-to-1 against.)
Doing what's right despite the politics sounds good, but ask George H. W. Bush how his tax increase worked out. And ask Sen. John "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" Kerry how nuanced explanations of the legislative process play with the public. Legislating is about compromise, but that's an undervalued ability in the heat of a presidential race.
Could the gamble pay off? Sure. Congress might produce a bill that addresses the economic problem, saves Wall Street without actually bailing it out, and has support from Democrats, conservatives, and heartlanders.
Don't hold your breath.