MARGARET WARNER: And for that, we’re joined by Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Byron York of the National Review.
Ruth, Byron, Barack Obama and John McCain both said today it’s time to rise above politics. But wasn’t today, at least as far as the two of them were concerned, mostly about politics?
BYRON YORK, National Journal: Yes, it certainly was. I talked to a senior person at the McCain campaign not long ago and said, “Well, why did he come out and say this?”
And they said, “Well, he saw today that the administration plan had just run into so much opposition.” I think the headline of the Washington Post on the front page was that the Bush plan had met bipartisan outrage.
So he felt like he needed to go back and do that, which I think, if he had stopped there, would be a very, very smart move, because these guys are senators and they’re both the leaders of their party now. So the idea that they would be taking a leading role in the biggest thing that the Congress has done in quite a while would be reasonable.
Then, he took the step farther to say he’s suspending all political activity — political activity, campaign activity, meaning the debate, as well.
Obviously, Obama has said no. And they appear to be in this kind of standoff right now, because I said, “Well, OK, now Obama has just said no. What are you going to do?”
And they said, “Well, we said we’re going to suspend all campaign activity.”
Perhaps there could be a compromise. You know, the debate is supposed to be about foreign policy, national security. Maybe it could be changed. Who knows what kind of compromise could be reached?
RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: I thought the candidates had done actually a reasonably good job in the last few weeks of trying to keep politics to the extent that they could out of it. They were sniping at each other, but they weren’t sniping in ways that affected this deal.
And I completely agree, if he had stopped at, “It’s really important, and Barack Obama and I are going to hold hands together and get us over this patch,” which is what the Obama campaign argues that it was trying to achieve today, that would have been great.
I think that the notion that he’s not going to debate — first of all, everybody understands we don’t need John McCain in the room negotiating the fine print to get this fixed, nor Barack Obama, and they can take the time to have the debate.
And it just brought politics hugely into the picture. John McCain was out there, the way I saw it, saying, “I’m — hi, I’m the one who really cares about the economy. I just” — he just, from the Obama campaign’s perspective, has literally just hung up the phone with Obama and saying, “Let’s do a joint statement,” and went out there, and unilaterally made this challenge to make him look like he was the one who really cared about the economy.
That is not a good way to get politics out of the picture.
Possible attempt to pressure Obama
MARGARET WARNER: So what was McCain's calculation here? I mean, does the McCain campaign think this makes him look like a leader?
BYRON YORK: Well, first of all, it does put pressure on Obama to -- I mean, he's out campaigning, and he basically said in his statement this afternoon, Well, you all know where to reach me. You can call me, and I'll help, if I can.
So it does make McCain look much more involved. The other thing you have to remember, though, is this comes on the same day as a Washington Post poll has just come out showing Obama with a much bigger lead over McCain than we had previously thought.
Also, the number of people who say the economy is their top issue for president went from 37 percent a couple of weeks ago to 50 percent now; war in Iraq, 9 percent; health care, 5 percent, much, much smaller.
McCain had a bad week last week on the economy, so this was a way to retake that issue.
MARGARET WARNER: And the Obama people, did they have to think long and hard about whether to call McCain's bluff, at least over the debate?
RUTH MARCUS: In terms of turning up? I think they're hopeful that we're getting close enough to a deal on the Hill and that nothing concentrates the mind like a Wall Street meltdown, that this will all sort of -- the problem will evaporate and fix itself.
But I think their position and the debate commission's position is, "Let's go ahead."
MARGARET WARNER: They're going ahead.
RUTH MARCUS: And, I mean, I just think they feel like they were played.
MARGARET WARNER: So where does that leave McCain now? If the commission has essentially come out, as you said, with a statement saying, "We're going ahead," what does McCain do?
RUTH MARCUS: Doesn't turn up?
MARGARET WARNER: Starting tomorrow.
RUTH MARCUS: Starts to write Treasury regulations? I don't know. And the notion, for example, that this is -- we're at such a grave time that he needs to pull his campaign ads, you know, that doesn't actually help the economy. It helps the economy to spend a little bit.
Finding space for negotiation
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is the situation with this bailout, Byron, on the Hill? I mean, is McCain right? He says he's talked to a lot of Republicans up there and that this thing looks like it could be going down, unless something significant happens...
BYRON YORK: Well, there's -- I mean, there's significant agreement that the administration's plan is not a great one and it's got to be significantly changed.
And if you do listen to McCain and Obama, they have a number of similarities in their approach, as well as that of the other members of Congress.
There are huge areas for compromise and agreement here. There's got to be some sort of oversight, rather major oversight, because the original bill had a clause in it that said that the secretary of Treasury's decisions were not reviewable. There's a lot of room for agreement there.
MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, is -- are the reports right that really this bill is mostly in trouble with Republicans on the Hill?
RUTH MARCUS: It's just fascinating to watch the revolt of the Republicans and complaining about offering unfettered authority to the executive branch. You have to kind of laugh at that after all these years.
The reality is, is that I think the divisions are great, but they are greater than they appear. In other words, this is the kind of -- everybody understands, in the end, we need a fix, we need a big fix, and we need it quickly.
And, therefore, we will reach agreement -- I hope Congress and the administration will reach agreement on this pretty quickly.
And if you look -- for example, yesterday, the candidates were largely in agreement on their statements of principles. If they got in there and helped, or if they sent, as I think would be better, just sent their economic team to sit down with the leadership -- and, by the way, both -- Senator Obama has been on the phone with the leadership, has been talking with Secretary Paulson, to Chairman Bernanke -- that could help solve the problem.
President's role in crisis unclear
MARGARET WARNER: But, meanwhile, we do have the president of the United States who decided things were dicey enough that he's going to come out and give a primetime speech tonight. What does he have to do, Byron?
BYRON YORK: I don't think he can sell the plan, the original three-page plan as written. He just can't, and it's because of the accountability reasons.
As far as Republicans are concerned, I mean, they are concerned about, "Do we have to give all this money to these institutions? Is there some other way to do it than just giving it to them?"
He does have to address the Democratic concerns, which is shared by a lot of Republicans, about helping individual mortgage-holders.
And there is this executive compensation thing, which both of the candidates, the presidential candidates, agree there's going to be some sort of clause in that.
RUTH MARCUS: Which -- it's a silly issue, by the way.
BYRON YORK: It's a very politically strong issue.
RUTH MARCUS: Yes. Substantively, very silly.
MARGARET WARNER: As you could hear from Representative Gutierrez, though, it's a very politically potent issue.
BYRON YORK: Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the president -- what do you think he has to do tonight, Ruth? Does he have to, for instance, signal that we've got to get a deal, but we're willing to make all of these adjustments?
RUTH MARCUS: Yes, I think both. I have a kind of modest proposal for the president. I think it's time for another Andrews Air Force...
MARGARET WARNER: Speechwriters, listen.
RUTH MARCUS: I think it's time for another Andrews Air Force Base summit. He should send the Treasury secretary, ask the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the congressional leadership, and economic advisers from the two campaigns to go out to Andrews, report back by Monday morning with something that everybody agrees on.
I think that is completely doable and would be a very good way to get this solved, unless they are much closer than we understand they are at this moment, unless they really think it could be done, you know, essentially, overnight.
BYRON YORK: Well, do you think it does make sense, if there were that summit, that you'd have the two congressional leaders of the party, McCain and Obama, off talking about something else at a debate? Wouldn't they want to be seen to be involved in that?
RUTH MARCUS: I think it would be -- I think it would be very odd to have a debate at this point that sort of pretends as if we're not having an economic crisis swirling around us.
I think the debate should go on. I think the topic of the debate should, if not change, at least expand to include that. But they're not the economic experts. They've got folks who understand the details.
MARGARET WARNER: Byron, Ruth, we have to leave it there for now. We'll be back. Thank you both.
BYRON YORK: Thank you.