Friday, September 26, 2008


If you enjoy watching poker on TV, you'd rather watch a table that features a bigime LAG -- a loose, unpredictable player who will make a play with trash hands -- than a bunch of methodical "math" players. Unpredictable play makes for far better TV. In the same way, I'm grateful for John McCain, an adrenaline fiend whose drama queen antics have made this election perhaps the best reality television show in history. Even better than Real World, Season 3.

LAGs are fun to watch, but it's a high-risk style that's difficult to master, and McCain, it appears, hasn't quite gotten there. As with the Palin pick, you can't blame McCain for taking a big chance. At the start of the week, he was stalling in the polls, faltering in swing states, and in danger of going down with the Dow Jones as the narrative was turning against him. He needed to shake things up. So it looks like his campaign tried to stage some kind of intervention -- the story was supposed to be that the economy was saved by...John McCain! But between the time he decided on this gambit, and his arrival in DC, the GOP House members had gone into open revolt. The incoherent speech by the president failed to add clarity to the stakes here as the perception that this was a "Wall Street bailout" began to be widely accepted. The political pressure ratcheted up as some of the more cynical GOP strategists saw an opening to triangulate against the Dems and the Bush administration.

So McCain couldn't perform his planned Kabuki and instead faced a real dilemma: If he aligns himself fully with the GOP hardliners, he'll make a mockery of his talk of "bipartisanship" and saving the country. Attaching himself to a plan that offers more deregulation and capital gains tax cuts is also dangerous. But if he goes along with the Democrats and Bush's unpopular bailout, he wouldn't be able to distinguish himself from Obama while further alienating the GOP base. Brokering a deal is out as the GOP insurance scheme is fundamentally incompatible with Paulson's plan, which is about a massive federal purchase of of mortgage-backed securities that regulators believe are not correctly priced.

If McCain truly wanted to go all-in, he could have gone against the Paulson plan and played chicken by proposing some kind of populist alternative (there are no shortage of alternative bailout proposals out there) and stuck to his debate postponement threat. This would be the kind of bold positioning that may win him votes. But this plays risks disaster as, as market losses would be blamed on McCain if the Democrats refuse to play ball.

In reality, the financial crisis offered a menu of terrible political choices for all involved. A bailout is probably necessary, but any plan that aims to free up the credit market is a tough sell to voters. Why money to Wall Street? Why not bailout struggling homeowners? Or why not let Wall Street go down in flames? McCain would have been better off this week sitting back and assigning blame. He should have folded and waited for a better hand. Instead, he looked down, saw a 5-3 suited and thought this was the spot to make a move. So the guy raised preflop, raised the flop, got called by a cool and methodical Obama, and folded on the next bet.

Good LAGs make a read and follow through. John McCain made a bad read, tried to bluff his way out, and then folded after he got called. Maybe a good debate performance will change the subject. But this was an unforced error, a play that makes you look like a clown. A few more high-profile botch jobs like one, and McCain will lose the one big advantage he's had over Obama: McCain was supposed to be the safe choice.