Sen. John McCain had intended to ride back into Washington on Thursday as a leader who had put aside presidential politics to help broker a solution to the financial crisis.
Instead he found himself in the midst of a remarkable partisan showdown, lacking a clear public message for how to bring it to an end.
At the bipartisan White House meeting that McCain had called for a day earlier, he sat silently for more than 40 minutes, more observer than leader, and then offered only a vague sense of where he stood, according to people in the meeting.
In subsequent television interviews, McCain suggested that he saw the bipartisan plan that came apart at the White House meeting as the proper basis for an eventual agreement, but he did not tip his hand as to whether he would give any support to the alternative put on the table by angry House Republicans, with whom he had met before going to the White House.
McCain said he was hopeful that a deal could be struck quickly, and that he could then show up for his scheduled debate Friday night against his Democratic rival in the presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama. But there was no evidence that he was playing a major role in the frantic efforts on Thursday night on Capitol Hill to put a deal back together again.
On the second floor of the Capitol on Thursday night, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and one of McCain’s closest confidants, complained to a throng of reporters that Democrats were using McCain as a scapegoat for the failure of the rescue package. But Graham was met with a barrage of questions on why McCain never explicitly said that he favored the bailout proposal. The situation was evolving so rapidly that it was all but impossible to judge the political implications; with the government under intense pressure to avoid another breach in confidence in the global financial markets, it was possible that a deal could be struck without further reshaping the campaign and that McCain could still be able to claim a role in a positive outcome.
Still, as a matter of political appearances — a key consideration for McCain less than six weeks from Election Day and at a time when some polls suggest he is losing ground against Obama, especially on handling the economy — the day’s events succeeded most of all in raising questions about precisely why McCain had called for postponing the first debate and returned to Washington to focus on the bailout plan — and what his own views were about what should be done.