Republican John McCain has maneuvered himself into a political dead end and has five weeks to find his way out.
Last Wednesday, McCain suspended his presidential campaign to insert himself into a $700 billion effort to rescue America’s crumbling financial structure. In so doing, he tied himself far more tightly to the bill than did his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama.
Then, as the bailout plan appeared ready for passage Monday in the House, McCain bragged that he was an action-oriented Teddy Roosevelt Republican who did not sit on the sidelines at a moment of crisis.
The implication: that he played a critical role in building bipartisan support for the unprecedented bailout.
"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," McCain said at a campaign rally in the swing state of Ohio.
Both he and Obama had insisted the plan originally proposed by the Bush administration be strengthened with greater oversight and regulation.
Within hours, however, the measure died in the House mainly at the hands of McCain’s own Republicans.
Initially, McCain went silent, choosing instead to send his chief economic adviser out with a statement that blamed Obama, claiming that the first-term Illinois senator had put his political ambitions ahead of the good of the country.
"This bill failed because Barack Obama and the Democrats put politics ahead of country," McCain senior policy adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin said.
It wasn’t long, however, before McCain told reporters in Iowa: "Now is not the time to fix the blame, it’s time to fix the problem."
All in all, McCain might have been better served by staying out of the mess and above the fray.
If the congressional impasse leads to a credit crisis, "it’s not going to be good for McCain," veteran Republican consultant John Feehery said.
Obama had predicted trouble last week when he said the four-term Arizona senator was wrongly inserting red-hot presidential politics into a critical bailout plan even as the package was finding little support among voters.
As the plan failed Monday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 777 points, the largest one-day point drop ever. Credit markets, whose turmoil helped feed the stock market’s deep anxiety, froze up further with the growing belief that the country is headed into a spreading credit and economic crisis.
Stunned traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange watched on TV screens as the House voted down the plan, and they saw stock prices tumbling on their monitors.
After the House vote, Obama — campaigning in swing-state Colorado — declared that McCain had "fought against commonsense regulations for decades, he’s called for less regulation 20 times just this year, and he said in a recent interview that he thought deregulation has actually helped grow our economy."
"Senator, what economy are you talking about?" Obama said.
Sensing Obama’s advantage, spokesman Bill Burton piled on:
"This is a moment of national crisis, and today’s inaction in Congress as well as the angry and hyper-partisan statement released by the McCain campaign are exactly why the American people are disgusted with Washington."
McCain has been routinely wrong-footed on the slumping U.S. economy throughout the campaign, starting last year when he said he was not as up on that subject as he would like to be.
Polls consistently have shown voters place greater trust in Obama to pull the country out of a financial crisis that has not been matched since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
McCain — apparently obsessed with those facts — gambled last Wednesday by declaring he had suspended campaigning to bring his considerable bipartisan credentials to bear in congressional negotiations with the Bush administration. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson sent the enormous bailout package to Congress 11 days ago and said passage was urgent.
The measure went down 228-205, with more than two-thirds of McCain’s own Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats opposed.
Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.
Steven R. Hurst is the international political writer for The Associated Press and the former Baghdad bureau chief.