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The Peril For Democrats

The politics of this bailout bill are as fascinating as anything in Congress since the fall 2002 Iraq war vote. And I sense that, after a period where McCain's neck was on the line, things are now getting dodgy for Democrats.

Here's why: Negotiations with Republicans may have "blown up," last night. But Democrats very likely have the votes to pass a bill on their own. The issue is that, with public anger boiling, Democrats are refusing to pass a bill without ample support--and therefore political cover--from the GOP. Nancy Pelosi has let it be known she wants roughly 100 Republican votes to make this happen in the House.

This is all totally understandable from a political point of view. Why should Democrats take the fall in an emergency that affects all Americans--especially when much of the problem is traceable to Republican rule--and then watch the GOP pound them with populist demagoguery for the next five weeks? But that's the pickle Pelosi and Harry Reid find themselves in. 

Because if the fate of the economy really does rest on this plan, Democrats can hardly refuse to act just because the politics stink. So, channeling my inner Machiavelli here: If you're John Boehner and co., why not be obstinate, let the Democrats swallow the bitter bill, and then after passage start grandstanding about how Democrats used taxpayer money to reward their fat-cat buddies in New York City? Indeed, it seems that's where we're now headed. Boehner and Roy Blunt have been all over TV today reminding people that the Democrats have the votes here.I've never found either of those men very impressive as leaders. But it's worth remembering that their summer theatrics to pressure Nancy Pelosi over new offshore oil drilling, which initially struck me as petulant and desperate, wound up working: Pelosi backed down.

What does all this mean for McCain and Obama? Hard to say. I do wonder whether McCain would have been smarter to keep hemming and hawing on the bailout--and then come out against it after it passed. Perhaps he can still find a way to oppose whatever plan passes, assuming one does. But that would require admitting he'd failed at bringing everyone together and getting the right thing done. (One silver lining for Democrats: Republicans might find it hard to attack a bailout bill viciously if McCain supports it, should that ultimately be the case.)

And as for Obama, the more I think about this dynamic, the more I think he's been smart not to get too visibly invested in the whole process. There's some real danger afoot for Democrats here.

Update: It seems that Newt Gingrich has not only been egging the House GOP'ers on, but he's also urging McCain to, in fact, reject the bill and tie it around Obama's neck.

--Michael Crowley