When John McCain held an unexpected news conference mid-Wednesday afternoon he addressed the current economic crisis with direness previously unseen. His campaign would be suspended, he told reporters, in order to work on the bailout legislation in Congress. The debate scheduled with Barack Obama on Friday night, he added, could be postponed.
Observers, critics, even fellow Republicans, were left wondering: where did this sense of urgency come from? After all, it was this past Sunday that McCain hinted on 60 Minutes that he would support the bailout -- "we have to stop the bleeding" -- only to express deep criticisms on Monday and then admit he hadn't even read the three-page proposal on Tuesday.
"I have not had a chance to see it in writing," said the Senator. "I have to examine it."
The move permeated with political opportunism: an attempt by McCain to grab the leadership mantle he did not own and divert attention from poll numbers that were plummeting. Indeed, on Wednesday morning a Washington Post-ABC poll had McCain trailing Obama 52 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. The internals were even worse: 54 percent of white voters with economic anxiety favored Obama.
So McCain changed the script, announcing his imminent departure from the campaign trail. And Democrats in Congress were left (somewhat angrily) scratching their heads.
"We're trying to rescue the economy, not the McCain campaign," said Rep. Barney Frank.
"I'm delighted that John is expressing himself on this issue," said Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. "I have heard form Obama numerous occasions these last couple days. I have never heard from John McCain on the issue... I'm just worried a little bit that sort of politicizing this problem, sort of flying in here, I'm beginning to think this is more of a rescue plan for John McCain and not a rescue plan for the economy."
McCain's mixed messaging on the bailout proposal was not just bizarre. It was emblematic of his actions the entire week. Indeed, the Senator has been all over the map when it comes to addressing the current situation. When the market crisis originally surfaced, McCain - now infamously - was the one to declare that the fundamentals of the economy were strong. Later he would call the situation the worst since World War II.
Even his actions on Wednesday seemed either oddly calculated or at conflict with the image he was trying to present. It was, in fact, Obama who first proposed to form a unity front in addressing the issue, calling McCain at 8:30 in the morning to discuss the issuance of a joint statement. The call went unreturned for six hours. McCain's campaign would later claim he was huddling with economic advisers. But during that time he made a scheduled stop with Lady Lynn de Rothschild, a high society New York Democrat who recently endorsed his campaign. Rothschild did not return repeated request for comment.
At 2:30 the two candidates finally connected and agreed on the idea of a co-authored declaration of principles. But by the time Obama got back to his hotel room, McCain had already declared his campaign's suspension. If the idea seemed impromptu, it surely wasn't. The website PolitickerCO posted talking points that aides to the Arizona Republican had sent to one another to help manage the candidate's newly stated position.
And then, after McCain told late night host David Letterman that he could not make his scheduled appearance on his show because of urgency of the situation, he still managed to swing by CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, much to Letterman's dismay. That interview, a spokesperson for the station told the Huffington Post, had been arranged shortly after McCain had temporary halted his campaign - a curious move for a candidate who was asking his opposition to drop everything and get back to Washington with him.
"Clearly there was news today," said a spokesperson for the station. "We asked for an interview and he said yes."
In fact, the Senator is still scheduled to appear at Bill Clinton's Global Initiative event in New York on Thursday, before heading to D.C.
In essence, at the same time McCain was warning of the danger of inaction, he himself was not moving with haste. And there is some question - bordering on concern - about the role he would actually play once back in Congress. As one Senate staffer told the Huffington Post: "McCain's little gambit really runs the risk of mucking up the works, maybe even delaying a deal. This is complex stuff, he's had zero involvement so far."
And yet, by the time McCain arrives on Capitol Hill the contours of a bailout proposal may already be in place. On Wednesday evening, President Bush hinted that he was ready to acquiesce on several principles of the proposed legislation - to the enthusiasm of Obama. In the House of Representatives, meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank declared that Democrats had reached an agreement on a plan and had the votes to pass it.
McCain, for all the dramatics, could prove irrelevant.
"We are pleased to report we are making bipartisan progress on a rescue proposal for our financial markets," said Chris Dodd and Sen. Chuck Schumer in a joint statement. "During these discussions, we have received significant cooperation and constructive feedback from the other side of the aisle -- with one notable exception. Apart from his unproductive criticisms made from afar, we have heard nothing from Senator McCain on these critical issues. Now is certainly not the time for him to inject presidential politics into these delicate discussions."