Facing a primary challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been “moving starkly — and often awkwardly — to the right,” even abandoning some his past positions like support for cap-and-trade. In an interview with the Editorial Board of the Arizona Republic on Thursday, McCain tried to distance himself from the bank bailout he supported in the fall of 2008, claiming that then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke misled him on the TARP plan.
In the same interview, McCain reportedly claimed that he suspended his campaign to return to Washington, D.C. only at the request of President Bush:
In his new book “On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System,” Paulson belittles McCain’s contribution to the response, noting that “when it came right down to it, (McCain) had little to say in the forum he himself had called.” He also called McCain’s decision to return to Washington, apparently without a plan, “impulsive and risky” and even “dangerous.”
McCain said Bush called him in off the campaign trail, saying a worldwide economic catastrophe was imminent and that he needed his help. “I don’t know of any American, when the president of the United States calls you and tells you something like that, who wouldn’t respond,” McCain said. “And I came back and tried to sit down and work with Republicans and say, ‘What can we do?'”
McCain’s telling of the decision to suspend his campaign and attend a bipartisan meeting at the White House doesn’t match with several descriptions of the decision. In their book Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann report that McCain asked Bush to call the White House meeting after deciding to suspend his campaign:
— McCain set off back to the Hilton. In the car he called Bush and informed him of his decision, and asked if the president would host a meeting at the White House for him, Obama, and congressional leaders to discuss the bailout bill. Bush feared such a meeting would inject a destabilizing does of politics into a fragile situation. He told McCain that his intercession would undercut Paulson and wasn’t likely to help solve the problem. After hanging up, Bush instructed his aides, [f]ind out what’s going on here. But before they had a chance, McCain was on TV, standing at a lectern at the Hilton, announcing the suspension and calling on Bush to convene a conclave. (Game Change, p. 384)
— By the late afternoon, McCain finally got some good news. Bush had agreed to host the meeting. The president called Obama to extend an invitation for the following day. Obama sensed reluctance in Bush’s voice, but, like the president, he felt he had no real choice but to accede to McCain’s wishes. (Game Change, p. 385)
— Bush was dumbfounded by McCain’s behavior. He’d forced Bush to hold a meeting that the president saw as pointless — then sat there like a bump on a log. Unconstructive, thought Bush. Unclear. Ineffectual. (Game Change, p. 389)
But McCain demurred. “I’ll wait my turn,” he said. It was an incredible moment, in every sense. This was supposed to be McCain’s meeting—he’d called it, not the president, who had simply accommodated the Republican candidate’s wishes. Now it looked as if McCain had no plan at all—his idea had been to suspend his campaign and summon us all to this meeting. It was not a strategy, it was a political gambit, and the Democrats had matched it with one of their own.