THE BLOG

Or, You Could Lead

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

It is a fantastic parting statement from the Bush administration, an effort to codify the unwritten law that this presidency years ago proved -- that rich screw-ups are this nation's nobility.

It is also essentially an act of armed robbery on a previously unheard-of scale. If the American people don't throw a couple thousand dollars each into the bag, our entire economy is about to get a bullet through the temple. Congress was supposed to hand over the bills and stop trembling only after the Bush gang had vanished into the sunset, as they had done so many times before.

But some of the townsfolk have had enough. This time -- it so far seems -- people like Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and yes, John Boehner at least had the good sense to start marking the bills. So where are the men who would be their leader, Barack Obama and John McCain? They were those jittery guys in the back, silently debating whether they should jump the gunman or jump off the train.

Of course, we're not really talking about two guys back in the caboose. Obama and McCain are members of the US Senate. Obama serves on the Labor and Pensions Committee. McCain serves on the Commerce Committee. At the moment, both also happen to be the leaders of the two major American parties, and each hopes to manage the economy as chief executive in just four months' time. Every single one of these positions gives them some degree of obligation to or interest in this process.

After a rather good and clear initial statement from Obama (seven talking points, followed by backtracking on some of the key ones,) a long, sad and confused series of stumbles by McCain landed the two at essentially the same positions: "Yes, the plan is necessary, but it is also patently and profoundly flawed. It doesn't change my economic plans... until maybe it does. And no, I am not telling you whether or not I will actually vote for it."

Then came the most disturbing part of the entire ordeal--their stalling. How quiet were these guys? Until earlier today, nobody even knew if they were even going to show up to vote on the thing. They had arrived at their safe, no-brainer positions and were waiting to attack when the other guy said something new. Finally, a joint statement was the only way out of their standoff. Finally, George W. Bush--who is hardly Mister Action in times of crisis--had to summon the pair back to Washington to participate in the process.

Now, let me be clear: I believe the bailout, if only for lack of a better alternative, is necessary. And if public perception becomes that it has fallen apart, I do believe that the economic consequences could be incredibly severe. I am not suggesting for one moment that either of these men come out against some serious form of intervention.

But let us not pretend that this is the best rescue plan we can come up with. This isn't even a solution so much as a consolation. As far as hopes for solvency go, it's hardly Glass-Steagall or even the Emergency Banking Act. As far as chances for a return on taxpayer investment goes, it's a far, far cry from the establishment of the RTC. As presented by the Bush administration, this was nothing but a blank check to be signed over to people who have already proved they know how to lose other people's money. We can do a better job of this -- even make money at it, if we do it right.

And let us also not pretend that this bailout can happen without these two actually voting in favor, not just showing up to the bargaining table. This bailout, though probably a necessary move, is going to be unpopular by nature. There are a lot of people in Congress who aren't committed in part or entirely because they don't know where the other side's nominee stands. They don't want to go back to their constituents as the bailout guy, when the top of the other ticket might be the screw-the-Wall-Street-fat-cats-and-save-taxpayer-money guy. When two candidates negotiate a statement that says a plan "must not fail," it means they're open to blaming someone else if it does. It's not enough to convince skeptical legislators that you're actually going to vote for it even if the end product contains things you find objectionable.

John McCain, in an ironic application of his "America first" marketing slogan, managed to break his long silence while simultaneously taking lack of leadership on this issue to a whole new level. Rather than put forward ideas to help make the bill more workable, or dig America out of this hole, he called to suspend the campaign until the bailout deal is officially struck. Mind you, the candidates were to be spending much of this week preparing for a debate McCain now wants to call off. But then, if I had spent the last ten days rocking violently between "everything's great, bailouts are evil," and "we're all done for, oh God, give the man your jewelry," I would probably want to call a time out, too. Pure politics, presented as anti-politics.

Still, I'll grant him the breather if I can be spared the pain of ever again witnessing the pained manner in which he has detailed his basic understanding of the issue at hand.

For his part, Obama responded to McCain's request by announcing that he believes bankruptcy provisions and the stimulus package -- you know, the relief actually targeted at the middle class -- should be left out of the bailout deal. This is showing, "as great a sense of urgency about the emergency on Main Street as we do about the problems on Wall Street"?

To Obama's credit, he did work in the zinger, "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once." A great line, and very true. But what if McCain had broken the silence with something a little less dumb? Forgive the remote hypothetical.

For the moment, our jittery candidates have emerged to agree in their own little ways that the details of this trillion dollar deal are just too important to quibble over. While I certainly agree that partisan bickering shouldn't for one moment be allowed to risk an economic catastrophe, isn't there something a little discomforting about how lost they both seem after being thrown off script? Isn't this a time to speak up, if you want to lead the free world?

Allow me to humbly propound an alternative to calling a "time out," something that would make myself and I'm sure many other voters feel a little better: The men who hope to lead this nation through future crises could use their current positions as leader of their respective parties to actually show leadership during this time of crisis. Tell America that you're officially on board, even if it means voting for something that could be very imperfect. Or, if you want to get really wild, show good leadership by helping to fix the problem. Find more workable solutions to protect their investment--why let Chuck Schumer have all the fun?

In short, lead. It sounds crazy, I know. But if you're really fit to be the chief executive of this country, it just might work.