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By Jay Cost

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McCain Plays It Like McCain

There has been a lot of discussion about McCain's decision to suspend his campaign. I'll toss in my two cents.

I do not think it is a purely political move, a stunt or ploy designed only to advance McCain-Palin's message. The politics of it are too complicated for anybody to predict what will happen - which means that McCain is taking a risk. Few stunts are actually risky; they just appear to be.

I see two serious dangers for McCain. The first is with the images. The second is with the tricky assignment of credit.

First, one reason members of Congress do not typically get elected to the presidency is that, whereas the President seems big, Congress seems small. Congress is not a national body, per se. Rather, it is the meeting place of representatives from the various parts of our nation. Nobody in Congress is responsible to the nation at large. Instead, each is responsible to just a small slice of it. It's a fallacy of composition to believe that because each member of Congress tends a parcel of the nation, the whole Congress tends the whole nation.

This invariably shows through in the images we see of Congress in operation. Contrast your mental pictures of Congress with your pictures of the President, and you'll see what I'm driving at. Congress is not the place you want to put your presidential candidate 40 days before the election. The images might work for McCain if Congress had a prime minister position that McCain could effectively inhabit for the period of this "crisis." But there is no such role. So, by going back to Congress, McCain runs the risk of looking like he belongs there and not in the White House.

Second, an important element to the congressional dynamic is the assignment of credit and the avoidance of blame. Why is it that all of the legislators who have had a hand in this mess can preen about how awful it is? It has to do with the way Congress is organized. Blame is very diffuse - not just in terms of appearances, but also in actual governance. You can never blame just one member of Congress for bad policy. You have to blame dozens, sometimes hundreds, in both chambers and both parties. That means that individual members can avoid taking blame.

The same goes with credit. When Congress does something good, it is often because of a "team effort" across chambers and parties. There is rarely one person who demonstrably makes the difference. The causal chain is quite blurry. This is an important point to understand when teasing out the implications of McCain's situation. Because the assignment of credit is fuzzy and subjective, it is political. So, members of Congress can find themselves in a fight over who gets it. This is not the case all the time. Frequently, there is enough credit to go around. But sometimes there isn't enough - which means that you're likely to see a political fight, with opposing factions looking to take credit for themselves or assign the blame to others.

This is where McCain might run into trouble. By going to Washington, he has injected himself into this process, and thus opened himself up to the rhetorical attacks we are now hearing from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They are setting the stage for denying McCain credit for any deal that is brokered. If they are successful, McCain could be seen as an impediment regardless of whatever real help he might have given. Of course, just as the Democratic leadership will be working to keep McCain from getting credit, the Republican leadership will be doing precisely the opposite.

Accordingly, we should appreciate the risk in McCain's move. It is a benefit to him if and only if he is seen to have been a positive force. So, McCain's fortunes rest in part on the results of the unpredictable partisan back-and-forth over who should have the credit. And even if McCain does accrue some credit, he still runs the risk of seeming like a "small" member of Congress again.

The uncertainty of this situation makes me suspect that this was not done exclusively for strategic campaign considerations. Some have called it a desperate hail Mary - a risky gambit taken because the "bottom is dropping out." But that requires a pretty tendentious look at the polls. Five of the ten polls in the RCP national average show McCain down by three points or less. Gallup has a tie today. That is not consistent with the "bottom dropping out."

Instead, I suspect that, as with the Palin pick, this is McCain being McCain. He didn't like the situation. So, he did something. We've seen him do stuff like this again and again over the years. Lieberman gave the best description of McCain at the Republican convention: he's a restless reformer. I think that McCain being McCain, he felt restless - so he went to Washington to do something.

Regardless of how we might feel about his decision - we can agree that McCain has once again affected the race by his actions. This is the second time he has done this in a month. It's become an ironic feature of this campaign. While most agree that the election will hinge upon public considerations of Barack Obama, so much of the campaign itself has hinged upon the actions of John McCain.

-Jay Cost