Make Room at the Table

By Ruth Marcus
Thursday, September 25, 2008

It's time to go back to Andrews Air Force Base -- with a twist.

In 1987 and 1990, administration officials and congressional leaders of both parties huddled behind closed doors at the suburban Maryland facility to hammer out plans to deal with the budget deficit.

The current crisis calls for an updated, hyper-speed version of those negotiations. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke should drive out to Andrews with their top people. The senior House and Senate leaders of both parties should go, along with a few key aides.

President Bush has summoned Barack Obama and John McCain to the White House tomorrow. Okay, but yesterday's game of Debate Chicken suggests that inserting the candidates so directly into the negotiating process will help neither the economy nor the campaign -- nor, I suspect, the candidates themselves.

However -- and this is my Andrews twist -- each candidate should send his top economic advisers to my proposed summit. Everyone should pack right now and come back Monday morning at the latest with a deal.

I'm not generally a fan of governing by summit. Like outside commissions, summits tend to produce up-or-down results when they produce any results at all. I prefer a more democratic process. Summits also can devolve into drawn-out marathons. The 1990 summit, in which the first President Bush revoked his "no new taxes" pledge, dragged on for 10 days.

Structuring the bailout arrangement, however, is not the kind of legislation that ought to be open to the potential mischief of amendment on the floor. There is reasonably broad agreement on principles -- that a package is needed and needed quickly -- but complex details must be worked out.

Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a market meltdown. A good weekend's work at Andrews ought to be enough to hammer out the complicated parts, such as what the oversight structure should be or how to deal with executive compensation.

So what should the candidates' roles be? One of the two, after all, will inherit this mess -- and the less messy it is, the better off he will be. Each is, in some sense, the leader of his party. Each is a sitting senator.

They need to be involved, yes, but not so deeply engaged that political maneuvering elbows aside serious policymaking, as yesterday's posturing threatened to do. I suspended my campaign first! No, I care more about the economy and I called you first! I'm above politics! No, I'm above politics! Does anyone think this is productive? Soon enough McCain and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went at it. By early evening it seemed that everyone was sniping at everyone.

McCain was the worst abuser yesterday. It was bad enough that he announced that the situation was far too serious to do anything as frivolous as debate -- not! -- especially because McCain acted unilaterally, just after finishing a phone discussion with Obama about whether they should issue a joint statement. Then McCain solemnly declared he was also suspending advertising and fundraising -- showboating of the first order. The economy could use that ad revenue, senator.

Then Obama weighed in, saying at a news conference saying he was a walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time guy who could debate and deal with the economic problem, too. Message to candidates: This sort of jockeying for political advantage isn't making anyone look good.

And seriously, no one needs Obama and McCain in the room to work out the details. It's important to the country to hear them debate. But it is also crucial that each campaign participate in crafting, and therefore buy into, whatever deal emerges. The campaigns are neutralized if the candidates have representatives on the scene. And both Obama and McCain could play a useful cat-herding role by providing backing that could calm recalcitrant lawmakers.

In short, the candidates should go on with the show, hold the debate, keep campaigning. Everyone else: Head out to Andrews. A veteran of the 1990 summit tells me that the food there is pretty good.

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