A tenuous agreement on a bailout plan for Wall Street that had been reached Thursday morning was threatening to fall apart by the time evening had arrived. At fault, it became clear, was a divided Republican Party within the House of Representatives, whose leadership begrudgingly favored the $700 billion bailout but whose ardently conservative members were balking at the idea.
One GOP lawmaker, referring to his defiant colleagues, asked rhetorically: "For the sake of the altar of the free market system, do you accept a Great Depression?"
But if the party was looking for leadership, it did not find it in its presidential nominee. Sen. John McCain, who on Wednesday said he was leaving the campaign trail to help steer a bailout proposal, may have just exacerbated the problems.
His arrival on Capitol Hill came shortly after the initial compromise was announced. And his presence at a White House meeting later in the day produced more confusion than results. Shortly after McCain convened with the president, Sen. Barack Obama, Treasury Secretary Paulson and congressional leaders, his campaign seemingly criticized all parties involved.
"Despite today's news reports," a memo read, "there never existed a 'deal,' but merely a proposal offered by a small, select group of Members of Congress. As of right now, there exists only a series of principles, including greater oversight and measures to address CEO pay. However, these principles do not enjoy a consensus in Congress."
Later, the campaign sought to fight back against a developing narrative that McCain had hurt negotiations by speaking positively about an alternative bailout proposal, one put forth by a "working group" of conservative House Republicans.
In a damage control effort, McCain aides sent reporters a link to an article written by the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, which reported that the Senator had taken no leadership position whatsoever.
"McCain himself did not bring up those [alternative] proposals" or attack the compromise, Ambinder reported, citing multiple sources. The McCain campaign called this an "accurate" reporting of what had happened, seemingly pressing the point that McCain had not tried to derail the compromise.
But in his story, Ambinder opined, "Boehner and the White House -- and McCain -- if they want to get something passed -- do have the responsibility to persuade these Republicans to support the bailout. After all, if not to get these recalcitrant Republicans on board, why did McCain go to Washington in the first place?"
Indeed, even members of the conservative commentariat were forced to acknowledge that much of what was happening among Republicans was strict, bare-knuckled politics.
"At the end of the day, there's a lot of people thinking about how to rebuild this party," said GOP strategist Ed Rollins on CNN, "and do we want to rebuild it with John McCain, who's always kind of questionable on the basic facts of fiscal control, all the rest of it, immigration. And I think to a certain extent this 110, 115 members of this study group are saying, here's the time to draw the line in the sand."
"That's pretty scary stuff that they're thinking about party right now and not country, is that what you're saying?" responded host Anderson Cooper.
"I think they're, yes, they're thinking about themselves," said Rollins. "I think they don't think that the threat is as great as a lot of other people do."
And so, a bailout proposal that once seemed likely to pass now is back to negotiations. In the process, Secretary Paulson was reduced to getting on his knees to beg House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not to have her party members bail on the proposal; President Bush was forced to ponder a market meltdown on his watch; and Democrats were left fuming that in a bid for the leadership spotlight, John McCain may have simply gone and fouled things up.
"Bush is no diplomat," said a Democratic staffer, "but he's Cardinal freaking Richelieu compared to McCain. McCain couldn't negotiate an agreement on dinner among a family of four without making a big drama with himself at the heroic center of it. And then they'd all just leave to make themselves a sandwich."