Compare And Contrast

Barack Obama on his response to the economic meltdown:

“We were getting phone calls from people in Washington and I think there were some on our staff that were thinking that maybe we should interject and respond in some way. My strong feeling was that this situation was of such seriousness that it was important not to chase the cameras. One of the advantages that we had was that I think we had been steady from the start. I had already called my economic advisors together. I had already put forward a clear set of principles that were in the process of being adopted. I had been talking to Paulson and Bernanke and the congressional leadership on a regular basis so it wasn’t like I felt in any way that I was out of the loop. I felt like I was helping to shape the direction of this. And one of the things that I have become more and more convinced of during the course of this campaign is that in an environment like this one where people are really paying attention because they are worried and they are scared good policy will end up being good politics — more than I think might have been true during boom times in the nineties when people were just feeling like it was sport, it was a game. “

Robert Draper on McCain’s response:

“The meeting was to focus on how McCain should respond to the crisis — but also, as one participant later told me, “to try to see this as a big-picture, leadership thing.” As this participant recalled: “We presented McCain with three options. Continue offering principles from afar. A middle ground of engaging while still campaigning. Then the third option, of going all in. The consensus was that we could stay out or go in — but that if we’re going in, we should go in all the way. So the thinking was, do you man up and try to affect the outcome, or do you hold it at arm’s length? And no, it was not an easy call.”

Discussion carried on into the afternoon at the Morgan Library and Museum as McCain prepared for the first presidential debate. Schmidt pushed for going all in: suspending the campaign, recommending that the first debate be postponed, parachuting into Washington and forging a legislative solution to the financial crisis for which McCain could then claim credit. (…)

Schmidt evidently saw the financial crisis as a “true character” moment that would advance his candidate’s narrative. But the story line did not go as scripted. “This has to be solved by Monday,” Schmidt told reporters that Wednesday afternoon in late September, just after McCain concluded his lengthy meeting with his advisers and subsequently announced his decision to suspend his campaign and go to Washington. Belying a crisis situation, however, McCain didn’t leave New York immediately. He spent Thursday morning at an event for the Clinton Global Initiative, the nonprofit foundation run by former President Bill Clinton. As McCain headed for Washington later that morning, he was sufficiently concerned about the situation that Schmidt felt compelled to reassure him. “Remember what President Clinton told you,” Schmidt said, referring to advice Clinton had dispensed that morning: “If you do the right thing, it might be painful for a few days. But in the long run it will work out in your favor.””

What’s interesting to me is that both candidates seem, on the surface at least, to have operated on the same principle: “good policy will end up being good politics”, “If you do the right thing, (…) in the long run it will work out in your favor.” The obvious next question is: OK, what is the right thing to do? And McCain got that one so spectacularly wrong that it’s hard to imagine that he cared about it in the first place.

If a Presidential candidate truly wants to do the right thing in a situation like this, it seems to me that the best thing to do is not to talk about it, and not to do anything dramatic, but to work as hard as you can behind the scenes. Very few difficult policy decisions are improved by having Presidential politics injected into them, and this seemed unlikely to be one of the exceptions. McCain is not on any of the relevant committees, has no obvious expertise in finance, and, by all accounts, does not have the kind of standing in Congress that would let him rally members behind him. That means that it’s not at all clear how his returning to DC would help at all, especially since he could just as easily have tried to round up support for whatever course of action he thought best by phone.

If McCain had actually asked himself what the right thing to do was, it’s hard to see how he could have come up with the answer: suspending my campaign and heading to Washington. If he did think that that was the most helpful thing he could do under the circumstances, I’d have to seriously question both his judgment and his insight into his own capacities.

Steve Schmidt was right to see the crisis “as a ‘true character’ moment”. It revealed a lot about McCain. For instance, it revealed that in the midst of the biggest economic crisis in decades, he was more concerned with looking like a leader than with acting like one, and more concerned with the politics of his own response than with doing the right thing. It also revealed that he doesn’t think his own responses through, which is why he had to un-suspend his campaign so quickly.

But it’s also revealing that when Steve Schmidt had to “reassure” him, he told McCain that he was doing the right thing. It was pretty obvious that that wasn’t true: at any rate, a few questions about why this was the right thing to do would have made it clear that there was no reason at all to think that it was. It’s interesting both that Schmidt tried to buck McCain up by appealing to his desire to think of himself as doing the right thing, and that he could count on McCain to accept that appeal to his vanity without subjecting it to scrutiny.

Decisions like this one reveal what matters to a person. People who care more about actually doing the right thing than about thinking that they do take the time to figure out what the right thing is. People who care more about their own self-image than about actually doing what’s right, by contrast, have no reason to bother with that question. It seems to be important to John McCain to think of himself as an honorable person who does the right thing. But in this case at least, he didn’t seem to care whether or not that thought was true.