The president asked me to speak, and I once again described the dire conditions in the market and the need for emergency powers. When I finished, the president said he had a simple test for making a decision on this: "If Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke say it's going to work and help stabilize the financial system, we are for it."Obama may be a dunce when it comes to leadership and pretty much every other issue, but it can't be denied he's one of the most masterful politicians we've seen in decades.
By protocol, the president turned to call on the speaker of the House. And when Nancy Pelosi spoke, it was clear the Democrats had done their homework and had planned a skillful response for McCain.
Ms. Pelosi said that Obama would represent the Democrats. Then Obama sketched the broad outlines of the problem and stressed the need for immediate action. He said the Democrats had been working closely with me; he ran through the rough terms of the morning's discussion on the Hill, then mentioned the need for adjustments on oversight and executive compensation, as well as help for homeowners. He spoke without notes—much less a teleprompter—and spoke eloquently. "The Democrats will deliver the votes," he asserted.
Then he sprang the trap that the Democrats had set: "Yesterday, Senator McCain and I issued a joint statement, saying in one voice that this is no time to be playing politics. And on the way here, we were on the brink of a deal. Now, there are those who think we should start from scratch. ... If we are indeed starting over, the consequences could well be severe."
But, of course, there was no deal yet. [Rep. Spencer] Bachus [R., Ala.] had been maneuvered into giving credibility to the appearance of one. But he, [House Minority Leader John] Boehner and [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell had since issued statements disclaiming the idea that there ever had been a deal. Now Obama and the Democrats were skillfully setting up the story line that McCain's intervention had polarized the situation and that Republicans were walking away from an agreement. It was brilliant political theater that was about to degenerate into farce. Skipping protocol, the president turned to McCain to offer him a chance to respond: "I think it's fair that I give you the chance to speak next."
But McCain demurred. "I'll wait my turn," he said. It was an incredible moment, in every sense. This was supposed to be McCain's meeting—he'd called it, not the president, who had simply accommodated the Republican candidate's wishes. Now it looked as if McCain had no plan at all—his idea had been to suspend his campaign and summon us all to this meeting. It was not a strategy, it was a political gambit, and the Democrats had matched it with one of their own.
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