10/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Non-Denial Denial

If you haven't been following this one, you're missing a doozey.

For a week, the McCain campaign has been lambasting Obama for his connections to ex-Freddie Mac executives. In response, the Obama campaign has pointed out that there are a number of people on McCain's staff who in the past had lobbied for Freddie Mac, and that the firm of McCain's campaign manger -- Rick Davis -- had done some of that lobbying. On Sunday, McCain was on the talk shows insisting that Davis had never, himself, lobbied on behalf of Freddie Mac and that he had had no connection with the firm that bears his name since some time in 2006.

Okay, here's where the fun starts. Today's New York Times has a story: according to unnamed but multiple souces -- allegedly including both Republicans and Democrats -- Rick Davis's firm, in which he remains and equity partner (and thus profits from the fees that it receives) has been receiving $15,000 per month directly from Freddie Mac executives right up through, for a total of $500,000. These payments were made under a contract that Davis personally arranged in which Davis was classified as a "consultant" rather than a lobbyist. According to sources quoted in the story there was no obvious work being done to earn these consulting fees beyond a single public appearance; instead, the payments are described as intended to ensure access to McCain, who was expected to run for President.

There are any number of people in the McCain campaign with ties to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. On Tuesday, Bloomberg News reported that the lobbying firm founded by the man McCain has enlisted to plan his transition to the White House received nearly $3 million from Freddie Mac between 2000 and its takeover, for example. But the Rick Davis story is remarkable for the tone of McCain's statement on Sunday: Davis, said McCain, "has had nothing to do with it [Freddie Mac] since, and I'll be glad to have his record examined by anybody who wants to look at it." The Davis situation is also remarkable given the lengths to which the McCain camp has gone to link Obama to Raines, in particular. As Jake Tapper, senior national correspondent for ABC News puts it, "You gotta have some serious stones to run a spurious TV ad assailing Obama for tenuous ties to former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines when your campaign manager's lobbying firm is still being paid by Freddie Mac." (Time Magazine has suggested that the McCain ads "play the race card" by putting up ominous-looking pictures of Obama and Raines, who is also African-American.)

But the best part is the just-issued response from the McCain campaign to the New York Times story:

Today the New York Times launched its latest attack on this campaign in its capacity as an Obama advocacy organization... As has been previously reported, Mr. Davis separated from his consulting firm, Davis Manafort, in 2006. As has been previously reported, Mr. Davis has seen no income from Davis Manafort since 2006. Zero. Mr. Davis has received no salary or compensation since 2006. Mr. Davis has received no profit or partner distributions from that firm on any basis -- weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual or annual -- since 2006. Again, zero. Neither has Mr. Davis received any equity in the firm based on profits derived since his financial separation from Davis Manafort in 2006. Further, and missing from the Times' reporting, Mr. Davis has never -- never -- been a lobbyist for either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Mr. Davis has not served as a registered lobbyist since 2005.

Notice what is missing from these denials. There is no denial that Davis Manafort has been receiving payments directly from Freddie Mac for performing no apparent services. There is no denial that as an equity holder in the firm Davis does not stand to gain from his firm's profits, only that he is not receiving compensation at present and that he has not "received any equity," presumably meaning that his equity stake has not been increased beyond what it was when he went on leave.

In the past few hours Davis has canceled an interview, then McCain canceled an interview, then McCain announced the suspensions of his campaign and called for a delay in Friday's debate, then the McCain campaign announced that it was suspending all television commercials and called on Obama to do the same, because a crisis like this one is no time for partisanship, or even interviews, let alone presidential debates. (While declaring the end of partisanship, interestingly, McCain spokespersons have found the time to insist that their candidate had no idea why Obama called at 8;30 in the morning and his own call to Obama at 1:30 was entirely spontaneous and all of this was entirely his idea, and wouldn't it be wonderful if Obama were to follow McCain's leadership.)

McCain's desire for a break is understandable, given the poll numbers and the seemingly endless stream of gaffes, flubs, and inconsistent statements coming out of his campaign over the past few days. In football terms, he wants a bye week to get himself organized; he would also like very much to slow down what is starting to look like momentum for Obama in the battleground states. Furthermore, this is a terrific opportunity for him to demonstrate leadership and bipartisanship in economic policy, the area where he is the weakest: if the upshot of the next few days is that McCain is credited with creating the plan that will Save Our Economy, his slide in the polls might reverse itself with alacrity. After all, if he is the one who made the plan, it would only be sensible that he be elected to put it into operation.

This is also McCain's attempt at another bold, game-changing move. The excitement of the Palin pick has started to wear off, now we have the spectacle of McCain rising above politics to save the nation from itself with his wisdom and his leadership. Barney Frank called it "the longest Hail Mary in the history of football or Mary's." We can be sure that it is not the last one; any time McCain's poll numbers start to slump over the next 40 days, expect to see his campaign looking for the next "Palin moment."

And besides all of that, there is all that stuff about how the country's economic future is at risk, here. Sarah Palin says we are on the verge of the next Great Depression. In Congress, Democrats and some Republicans have made it clear that they will not sign on to a deal that does not have McCain's support, because they will not be willing to have him use it to run against them. So there is a good argument that McCain and Obama turning their attention to their senatorial duties is a sensible thing at a moment like this one.

But it's also true that this is a really, really good time for McCain and Davis not to answer any questions for a few days. Meanwhile, the surreality of this campaign not only shows no signs of abating, it positively seems to be heating up.