Extortion racket

McCain to the country: “Nice little economy you’ve got there. Shame if anything happened to it.”

Bottom line first: John McCain’s plan is to hold the country hostage. Unless he is allowed to seem to be playing an heroic role, he will refuse to deliver the House Republican votes without which no plan will come to the floor. He will probably settle for a deal that is substantively the Dodd modification of the Paulson plan, with some sort of b.s. insurance program that no one will use thrown in as an “option,” though he might hold out for some sort of tax break for his rich friends.

The more the press falls for it, the better he does. The more the press calls him on it, the better for the country.

Here’s the story that leads to that conclusion, as told by Jonathan Weisman of the WaPo. (Nasty asides are mine and not Weisman’s.

* By Friday at noon, when McCain jetted in to Washington from his photo-op at the Clinton Global Whatever, the essentials of a deal had emerged: roughly the Dodd version of the Paulson plan. Lamar Alexander thought he had more than 40 Republican votes for it in the Senate.

* The House Republican leadership, in the persons of Spencer Bachus, the ranking minority member on House Financial Services, and John Boehner, had initially been willing to go along with the deal being negotiated. But the Boehner had a problem: a prospective challenge for the leadership in January from Eric Cantor, representing the wingnut wing of the party as concentrated in the Republican Study Group.

* By the time McCain came to town, Boehner had figured out that he couldn’t afford to be outflanked on the issue. So he got behind a plan Cantor and some of his fellow-loons had invented, one based on “insurance.” (No one seems to have told them that you can’t insure against an event that has already happened. The Treasury had studied similar plans and decided that they wouldn’t work.)

* The responsible thing for McCaim to do at that point would have been to call the White House and say, “Better not have that meeting,” which could only end in tears. But of couse the meeting had been McCain’s idea in the first place, consistent with his notion that “leadership” means Someone Important telling everyone else to “sit down and cut the bullsh!t.” Or McCain could have tried to exert some actual, y’know, leadership, by telling Boehner and Cantor that if they tried to wreck the economy as part of their leadership struggle he’d call both of them out on it and back some third candidate. Instead, McCain crashed a meeting of the Senate Republican leadership and told them that (1) the House guys were off the reservation and (2) he, McCain, was willing to stand alone against the deal in the Senate unless they were conciliated.

* At the White House meeting, Obama started by saying the something had to be done, but McCain refused to take a stand either for or against the Paulson-Dodd deal, or to put an alternative deal on the table. His flacks are now trying to shift the blame to Obama, who simply kept asking him at the meeting whether he was for or against the House Republican “insurance” plan. The meeting then broke up without getting anywhere.

So that’s how things stand right now. What’s the game from here?

Working on the all-important stubborn @sshole principle, McCain can get at least part of his way. The Treasury, Senate Democrats and Republicans, and House Democrats are all somewhat constrained by the “ethic of responsibility,” so if they’re given a straight-up choice between (1) preventing a train wreck while giving McCain credit he hasn’t earned and (2) not preventing a train wreck they’re going to choose (1).

How well that works for McCain depends in part on how many outsiders yell and scream and stamp their feet and point to McCain as someone who is clearly putting “Me first, country second,” and how many of the insiders &#8212 and most of all Republican insiders &#8212 are prepared to either tell the truth publicly or leak it after the deal is done. If the narrative presented here becomes the official media narrative, McCain is shafted.

But at that point, he might be willing to blow the whole thing up just to show how important he is, refuse to go along with anything, and hope that the Democrats will be willing to pass the Paulson-Dodd plan with Democratic votes only so that McCain and the wingnuts can campaign against the “Pelosi-Obama bailout” from now to Election Day.

Now, if Hank Paulson went to McCain and said, “If you try that, I will resign from the Treasury and tell the country that you have decided to put our economic future in peril for your own selfish political gain,” that might be a credible threat. But I have no reason to think that such a move would be in character.

Update Josh Marshall thinks that the anger at Obama that McCain displayed last night resulted from his having been humiliated by Obama’s questions at the White House meeting.

Second update Looks as if the deal that emerges will be pretty much the one that would have emerged Friday afternoon if McCain hadn’t meddled, plus a meaningless “insurance” provision to make the House Repubs think they did something. So far, it doesn’t look as if McCain will succeed in grabbing credit.

The deal is pretty bad, but probably better than a panic.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com