Kevin Frisch: McCain's bad political timing

Kevin Frisch

Poor John McCain. It’s bad enough that an issue he admits is not his strong suit — the economy — has suddenly become the most important in the presidential election campaign. It’s bad enough some conservative columnists are calling for his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to step down from the ticket. But what’s really bad — in fact, it appears to be almost a curse this past month — is McCain’s timing.

He made, for example, the unfortunate observation that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” on Sept. 15. That was the day Lehman Brothers announced it was filing for bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch announced it would be sold to Bank of America.

Then, in the current issue of Contingencies, a magazine geared toward actuaries (campaigning politicians leave no stone unturned), McCain writes: “Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation.”

Leave aside for a moment the stilted prose (he’s writing for actuaries, don’t forget), McCain holds the banking industry up as an example of free-market success just as it has begun to implode thanks largely to deregulation.

But it was when the house of Wall Street cards really started to collapse that McCain demonstrated his unfortunate economic timing.

With the Bush administration insisting a $700 billion bailout (since changed to “rescue plan”) was needed to shore up the nation’s financial institutions (since changed to “taxpayers”), McCain snapped into action.

Deeming negotiations stalled, the Arizona senator tied on his cape, temporarily halted his campaign and sped to Washington to take part in bipartisan talks aimed at ensuring passage of the $700 billion bail— er, rescue plan.

Which, frankly, surprised those doing the negotiating.

“It was somewhat stunning” to receive McCain’s phone call with that message, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told the Associated Press. Talks were proceeding fine without him, Reid said.

OK, Reid’s a Democrat. What about Republicans?

When asked if McCain could help win House Republican votes for the proposed package, Rep. John Boehner, the House’s Republican leader, offered this vote of confidence: “Who knows?”

In any event, Congressional leaders announced agreement on a broad outline for the plan the morning of Sept. 25. McCain arrived later in the day and took part in a White House summit with House and Senate leaders, President Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. But after an internal squabble among Republicans at the meeting — which got so heated Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson begged Democratic participants not to disclose how badly the meeting had gone — the deal was off.

Because it was a Republican opposition that derailed the deal and because McCain made a big show of inserting himself into the process, he took the political hit. As the Associated Press put it, “McCain, eager to shore up his image as a leader who rises above partisanship, was undercut by a fierce political squabble within his own party’s ranks.”

A new bill was put together over the weekend, and McCain, his timing remaining impeccable, seemed to take at least partial credit for its anticipated passage just before roll call last Monday:

“I went to Washington last week to make sure that the taxpayers of Ohio and across this great country were not left footing the bill for mistakes made on Wall Street and in Washington,” he told a crowd in Columbus, Ohio. “Some people have criticized my decision, but I will never, ever be a president who sits on the sidelines when this country faces a crisis.”

An hour later, the bill had been defeated.

They say that in comedy, timing is everything. But the last thing supporters of John McCain would describe his timing as is funny.

Messenger Post managing editor Kevin Frisch’s column, Funny Thing ..., appears each week. Contact him at (585) 394-0770/Ext. 257 or at