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Mccain Suspending Campaign. This Is "country First"?

As you may have heard, John McCain just announced he's suspending his campaign--and asking to postpone Friday's debate--so that he can return to Washington and help negotiate a solution to the nation's financial crisis. He also says he's asked Barack Obama to join him. 

While I am willing believe that McCain's interest in bipartisan reform is sincere, it's hard not to see at least some gamesmanship at work here. The McCain campaign has been reeling for the last few days and it's fast becoming apparent voters simply don't trust him on the economy as much as they trust Obama. The only break in the economic news has been the revelations about McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, and his lobbying ties to Fannie Mae. Anything that disrupts the present political cycle is, by definition, good for McCain.

Then again, gamesmanship is always at work in politics. Obama's campaign says they were the ones who contacted McCain this morning, in order to develop some joint principles on a financial bailout package. As with McCain, I'm sure the desire for bipartisan reform is sincere--and that political calculation went into that move, as well.

So let's look at the merits of the argument here. Is the country better served by having the two presidential candidates suspend their campaigns--and engage directly in the negotiations, as McCain just urged? I'm not so sure. I, for one, think Congress has been handling this pretty well so far. The Bush Administration came to them with an obviously flawed package. They responded with appropriate skepticism and are busy coming up with what look like sensible alternatives.

Implicit in McCain's appeal is that the presidential campaign was politicizing this issue, in ways that have made crafting a response more difficult. It's not clear to me that's actually been happening--or that politicizing the issue is such a bad thing. Coming up with the right response requires making choices about political values. Is it important to help homeowners? Is it ok for the government to own part of the investment business?

What does seem apparent, though, is that putting the two candidates in the negotiating room is far more likely to distract--and derail--negotiations than having them out on the hustings. Besides, it's not as if McCain has any great expertise he can bring to this subject. Or does he plan to bring Senator Phill Gramm, Mr. Deregulator himself, along?

One other concern: McCain just made it clear he expects a negotiated solution by Monday. In other words, he's just set a deadline. But, like many commentators and experts, I'm increasingly convinced that haste is bad idea here. If it takes a few extra days--or even a few extra weeks--to craft legislation, that might not be such a bad idea, as long as Congress makes clear that it will, eventually, do something. (For more on this, see my old friend Bob Kuttner today.)

So, no, I don't think this is such a great idea. In fact, it feels to me a bit like McCain is trying to use this crisis as a way to prop up his political fortunes. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose, except perhaps for a politican whose campaign slogan is "Country First."

--Jonathan Cohn