Leaked copies of Robert Draper's forthcoming New York Times Magazine exposé on the McCain campaign's many messages are already being picked apart by eager-beaver political journalists. But, interestingly, the piece's very first anecdote is one of the juiciest, as it contradicts the McCain campaign's own account of its first response to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's economic crisis proposal.
On Wednesday, September 24, Obama spokesman Bill Burton announced that his candidate had placed a call to McCain, encouraging a joint response to the Paulson plan:
At 8:30 this morning, Senator Obama called Senator McCain to ask him if he would join in issuing a joint statement outlining their shared principles and conditions for the Treasury proposal and urging Congress and the White House to act in a bipartisan manner to pass such a proposal. At 2:30 this afternoon, Senator McCain returned Senator Obama's call and agreed to join him in issuing such a statement. The two campaigns are currently working together on the details.
Shortly thereafter, the McCain campaign made its own clarification. "Senator Obama phoned Senator McCain at 8:30 am this morning but did not reach him. The topic of Senator Obama's call to Senator McCain was never discussed. Senator McCain was meeting with economic advisers and talking to leaders in Congress throughout the day prior to calling Senator Obama."
As MSNBC's First Read reported that same day, McCain also had time to meet with a prominent fundraiser who had supported Hillary Clinton.
But Draper's New York Times piece appears to refute the idea that McCain's meetings with advisers were economic in nature. Rather, they appear to have been explicitly political and tactical. In describing the "handful of advisers" attending that meeting, Draper includes "McCain's chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, and his other two top advisers: Rick Davis, the campaign manager; and Mark Salter, McCain's longtime speechwriter." Chief economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin is not placed in the room.
Of course, according to Draper, economic matters took top billing on the agenda, but not in explicit policy terms. Rather, Draper reports, the proper political reaction to the news was the subject of the meeting: "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.''"
Then Draper reports:
"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. Exactly how McCain could convincingly play a sober bipartisan problem-solver after spending the previous few weeks garbed as a populist truth teller was anything but clear. But Schmidt and others convinced McCain that it was worth the gamble."
As is well known by now, Schmidt won out, if only for a day or so. McCain did suspend his campaign (sort of) in an attempt to ride herd in Washington, only to relent and accept the original terms of the first debate before any bipartisan compromise was struck. But if Draper's account of the Wednesday morning sessions is accurate, it would appear that McCain's meetings were less about getting sound economic advice -- as claimed by the campaign -- and more about looking for the most politically advantageous angle on the crisis.