Michael Tomasky

Back in July, behind in the polls and stuck in neutral, John McCain’s campaign released its widely discussed TV adverts comparing Barack Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. They were mocked, but helped McCain gain traction. Something rang true to some segment of the American public. If the Obama campaign were as canny — or cynical, take your choice — they would now have adverts out comparing McCain to a mythic character in American film. An aging starlet, a Norma Desmond whose celebrity has faded but, surrounded

by courtiers, persists in behaving as if she were still the cynosure of Hollywood’s eye, saying:

“All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

The Democrats and President Bush, interestingly, are largely in agreement and could pass a

bill at any moment. But 100 conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives have balked.

In this context, it’s been a singularly instructive week to observe the candidates’ competing management styles. Usually, how a candidate campaigns doesn’t really have that much to do with how he will govern. But in this case we’ve learned far more in the past three days about how each would govern than we Americans usually have the opportunity to see.

An Obama mantra throughout has been “no drama Obama” — it’s the campaign’s way of saying he will engage in or indulge no acting out, no internal squabbling beyond legitimate disagreement, no leaking, no grandstanding. He’s run a tight ship, which is credited with having a lot to do with getting him this far.

He sometimes eschews drama to a fault, and one could argue he did so this week. I attended a press conference on Thursday night. He spoke for 10 minutes in a very circumspect fashion.

I couldn’t have been alone among journalists there in hoping he’d address McCain’s theatrics in a straight-on manner. No such luck: “When you inject presidential politics into delicate negotiations, it’s not necessarily as helpful as it needs to be” was as direct as he was willing to be.

Behind the scenes, Obama was apparently trying to play a constructive role. The New York Times reported of the meeting that “participants said Obama peppered [treasury secretary] Henry Paulson with questions, while McCain said little.” By contrast, McCain has been almost entirely about the theatrics — trying to swoop into town and finagle it so he could either take credit for any deal or grandly announce he would regretfully have to “put country first” and oppose it.

Even McCain supporters will acknowledge high finance is not his strong suit. But in this matter,

which will clearly consume a great deal of the next president’s time, McCain was concerned wholly with how to gain political advantage. He stood before the mirror, awaiting his close-up. Presidential campaigns (and their coverage) can be vacuous enough that it just may work in the short term. Americans able to think longer-term saw that experience and judgment don’t always walk hand-in-hand.