When John McCain suspended his candidacy last September to respond to the financial crisis, my gut feeling was that it was foolhardy.Â Later, as I read a few blogs, I saw the rationale behind it so that by the time I weighed in, I had “mixed feelings.”Â At the end of the day, I thought McCain’s bold action showed his leadership qualities, a man wanting to be in arena, fighting for his fellow Americans, the country he loves.
He did succeed in getting negotiators to include proposals from House Republicans, making the final package more palatable to conservatives.Â But, this demonstration of leadership hurt him politically, perhaps dealing a fatal blow to his campaign.
Commenting last month on the campaign suspension in the context of McCain’s reaction to the financial, Peter Wehner wrote:
Senator McCain, desperate to do something to change the trajectory of the race, ended up acting in ways that deepened the public’s doubts about him. And Senator Obama, while contributing absolutely nothing to the policy debate and constantly invoking Warren Buffett’s support, looked smooth and unflappable in the process.
In reflecting on McCain’s actions–and Obama’s–it seems the Republican wanted to govern, the Democrat to campaign. And that did not play out as I had thought it would.Â The American people did not recognize McCain’s commitment to action.Â They saw instead Obama’s appearance of leadership.
Michael Barone offers perhaps the best summary of Obama’s success since then:
Yet the narrow lead that McCain had after the conventions vanished (if the tracking polls can be trusted) precisely on September 18, the day that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke observed a coagulation of credit that threatened to bring down the economy and, in response, advanced the 1.0 version of their financial bailout/rescue package.
In the days that followed, voters seemed to be unnerved by McCain’s impulsiveness and reassured by Obama’s calmness. A majority reverted to the default mode of those long-ago days before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary: In bad times, throw the candidate of the in party out and put the candidate of the out party in.
Yet, Obama’s calmness masked his own indecision.Â He didn’t know what to do and deferred to Democrats in Congress. Obama benefited by being cool and by heading the ticket of the party out of power.
McCain suffered by appearing impulsive and by leading the the ticket of the party in power. As a result, Bruce Kesler believes, the Republican nominee “earned none of the points he should have for trying to tackle the credit-economic meltdown, even by comparison to Obama’s passivity.”
Obama may have appeared cool, but he did nothing.Â He is a master of appearances.Â And that’s what his potential victory tomorrow troubles me.Â Appearing calm in a crisis is one thing, a requisite, to be sure, for a leader.Â But, leaders have to do something.Â And in the most recent crisis, Obama deferred to others.
A president can’t do that.Â He has to act.Â Lacking experience in positions of executive authority, Obama has not provided us any clues how he would respond to a crisis.