During the presidential campaign, John McCain talked relentlessly about his involvement in efforts to pass major pieces of bipartisan legislation in the Senate -- from campaign finance reform to comprehensive immigration reform.
Seeking to "walk the walk," McCain even suspended his campaign for a day in September to return to Washington to step into the tense negotiations over a massive $700 billion financial bailout bill -- a move that badly backfired as the measure was defeated
The message from McCain during the course of the campaign was simple: I have the know-how and willingness to broker deals on major priorities of the American public. (The companion argument made by the McCain forces was that Barack Obama, for all his talk about bipartisanship and changing politics, had no record of reaching across the aisle to get things done during his brief time in the Senate.)
And so, given that recent history, it is somewhat surprising that McCain has been invisible this week as the Senate considered and then rejected a $15 billion bailout of the U.S. auto industry. (The measure passed the House on a largely party line vote earlier in the week.) The key player for Republicans -- aside from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) -- was not McCain but Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a relatively junior member who was elected to the chamber in 2006.
On its face, the impasse -- centered on the extent and speed with which the automakers changed their their business practices in return for the bailout money -- seems tailor-made for McCain's "man in the arena" approach.
The high-stakes negotations also offered an early chance for the Arizona senator to reassert himself as a power player in the Senate after Obama's decisive presidential victory. (McCain has already announced his intention to run for reelection in 2010 and to re-start his political action committee -- both moves that, on their face, suggest he has no intention of becoming a Senate back-bencher following his failed national bid.)
Conversations with a variety of Republican strategists suggest two main reasons for his non-role in the auto bailout talks.
The explanation kindest to McCain is that he has been away from the Senate for the better part of the last two years and is wary of inserting himself into the middle of the debate when others have been thinking about and working on the issue for months or years.
While there is almost certainly a re-adjustment period for McCain after the attention and pressures of his presidential campaign, it's hard to see a man who repeatedly declared that he would never win the "Miss Congeniality" award in the Senate afraid to step on a few toes when it comes to the auto bailout. It's possible that McCain -- fighter pilot, self-proclaimed maverick -- has fundamentally rethought his legislative approach, but we tend to doubt it.
The other possible explanation for McCain's absence from the front lines of the auto bailout talks is that he remains scalded from his unsuccessful attempt to close the deal earlier this fall on the broader bailout of Wall Street.
At the time, McCain's senior advisers believed he was caught in a trap. Either stay out of the ongoing (and collapsing negotiations) and run the risk of being criticized for being all talk and no action by Obama and other Democrats or return to Washington and take a chance that if a deal did not come together he would be seen as ineffectual.
McCain chose the latter option and watched his campaign's worst nightmare come true. McCain's campaign suspension was quickly perceived by voters as nothing more than a political gambit, and he struggled mightily in the ensuing weeks of the campaign to recover his footing on the economy.
Given that recent history, it's not hard to see why McCain might be slightly gun-shy about wading into another legislative morass that has no simple solution and that voters are decidedly divided over.
"Stepping in to fix a deal on the Hill wasn't the most successful thing he did in the last few months," said one Republican consultant granted anonymity to speak candidly about McCain's motivations.
McCain is famously resistant to psychoanalysis and so his real reasons for staying in the background of the auto bailout negotiations may remain a mystery. But, as McCain begins to re-orient himself to the Senate, it will be interesting to watch what sorts of issues (healthcare? energy?) he decides to weigh in on and how he goes about it.
Is the man in the arena gone? Or just on a temporary hiatus?
December 12, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories: Republican Party
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