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Crashing The Party

Editor's note: This column has been changed slightly from an earlier version to reflect Thursday’s events.

WASHINGTON--John McCain's sudden intervention in Washington's deliberations over the Wall Street bailout could not have been more out of sync with what was actually happening.

He lamented that "partisan divisions in Washington have prevented us from addressing our national challenges." But for days, bipartisanship has been the rule on both sides of this argument. Republicans and Democrats alike were highly critical of President Bush's proposal to inject $700 billion into the financial system. Yet leaders of both parties were trying hard to negotiate an agreement with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. That's why they were close to an agreement in principle even before the two presidential nominees arrived for yesterday's White House meeting that McCain thought was so important.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner normally fight about everything. But on Wednesday they issued a joint statement noting that "working in a bipartisan manner, we have made progress." That was true at least until yesterday's meeting, when Boehner, facing conservative defections, roiled the talks by offering an entirely new proposal.

And if McCain had been following the negotiations closely, he would have known that at times this week, Senate Democrats worried that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, was too eager for a deal.

Frank did not need McCain to make him bipartisan, and he grumbled before yesterday's White House gathering that it was a mere "photo op." After the meeting, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) called it "political theater" that may have stalled an agreement.

Bush himself was uncharacteristically forthcoming with concessions. In his address to the nation, he said he wanted to "ensure that taxpayers are protected." That meant he had acceded to Democratic demands that the government get shares in the firms it rescues. He endorsed oversight mechanisms his administration's proposal had lacked. He accepted an idea his negotiators had resisted fiercely: limiting what the financial titans who got us into this mess could pocket from this rescue.

If you doubt that McCain's moves were about rescuing his candidacy rather than our economy, consider how his proposal to suspend the presidential campaign came about.

McCain had just finished a phone call with Obama on Wednesday in which they discussed a joint statement of principles and McCain broached the idea of suspending the campaign. Obama said he'd think about it, but McCain didn't give him time. To Obama's surprise, McCain appeared on television shortly after the conversation to announce his unilateral pause in campaigning and a call for postponing Friday's debate. This is bipartisanship?

As for getting the nominees to yesterday's White House meeting, Bush's lieutenants had been in discussions with McCain's people during the day Wednesday. Obama didn't get his invitation from the president until around 7:30 p.m., just an hour and a half before Bush's speech. This was an active intervention by Bush on behalf of McCain to box Obama into the photo op. Again, was this bipartisan?

The simple truth is that Washington is petrified about this crisis and will pass something. There are dark fears floating through the city that foreign investors, particularly the Chinese, might begin to pull their billions out of our system.

Scarier than the bad mortgages are those unregulated credit default swaps that financier George Soros has been warning about. There are $45 trillion of those esoteric instruments sloshing around the global financial system. They were invented as a hedge against debt defaults, but even the financial smart guys don't fully understand their impact or how to price their real value.

Fear is a terrible motivator for careful legislating, but it's a heck of a way to bring about a lot of bipartisanship. McCain jumped into this game in the fourth quarter. Many of the players on the field, caked in mud and exhausted but determined as they approach the goal line, wonder why this new would-be quarterback has suddenly appeared in their midst.

McCain could yet play a constructive role by rounding up votes from restive Republicans. Oddly, the biggest obstacle to a bill may not be Democrats but Republicans who refuse to go along with their own president. And--yes, there is an election coming--Democrats will be wary of going forward unless a substantial number of Republicans join them.

But McCain's boisterous intervention--and particularly his grandstanding on the debate--was less a presidential act than the tactical ploy of a man worried that his chances of becoming president might be slipping away.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

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By E.J. Dionne, Jr.