Once again John McCain has chosen chaos over constancy as his presidential campaign …

Oops, I forgot: McCain currently doesn’t have a presidential campaign. It’s been “suspended,” even as he swoops down on Washington to preen around and pretend to inject his “leadership” in the struggle to save our floundering economy. For months Republicans have been blowing smoke up our asses, claiming that Barack Obama is “presumptuous” for drawing huge crowds, holding substantive meetings with foreign leaders, driving around in motorcades … and for requesting briefings from Treasury secretary Hank Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke. But what could be more presumptuous than McCain’s gambit to blow up the debate schedule so he can turn Congress’ bailout negotiations into a personal photo-op?

Let’s be brutally honest here: McCain has nothing to contribute to the actual negotiations between Congressional leaders and the current White House. Neither does Obama. Neither man sits on the relevant Senate committees, nor would either man be invited to sit on the Conference Committee that will attempt to reconcile differences between the House and Senate bills that eventually emerge. Today’s sit-down at the White House, for which McCain and George Bush conspired to pull Obama away from his scheduled activities, is mostly a dog-and-pony show; the real negotiations, if they’re not already wrapped up, will continue behind the scenes among staffers from Congress and the Treasury.

You’ve got to give McCain credit, though – he certainly knows how to make a splash. His grandiose display of “statesmanship” yesterday was a P.R. move, pure and simple, but it will probably work like a Pavlovian whistle among the small sliver of the electorate that sends poll numbers careening back and forth. What this says about those folks is another question. Why must the leadership of the free world hinge on a bunch of ninnies who are so easily distracted by shiny objects of no value (Sarah Palin) or offers of free (bi-partisan) joints from a guy who so clearly plans to get us strung out on the usual GOP heroin?

But I digress. There actually is one service McCain can provide in the current negotiations – that of pulling the wackiest of wacko conservatives back from the ledge, and convincing them to sign on to whatever compromise legislation emerges over the next few days. Unbelievably, there remains a core of House Republicans who would rather watch our banking system collapse than betray their conservative “principles” by allowing the government (horrors!) to do something about it. The Democratic leadership wisely has insisted that no bailout plan will come up for a vote without a critical mass of Republican support; McCain probably recognizes that unless such support coalesces, he and his party are likely to suffer such extraordinary losses in November that the party may never recover.

The trouble is that McCain’s “maverick” shtick has left him with few friends among Republicans who don’t appreciate diversions from party orthodoxy. “Compromise” and “bipartisanship” are the filthiest words in the GOP dictionary, and that’s what Johnny Mac has been pitching all year. House conservatives, in particular, already know they’re toast in November; can they be persuaded to sign on to a bailout plan they clearly don’t favor merely to boost the electoral prospects of a guy they detest?

Meanwhile, Obama’s supposed reticence in responding to the mounting disaster has looked better and better in recent days. As early as last weekend he had begun addressing the giant holes in Paulson’s bailout proposal, particularly the lack of a review board to provide accountability and the need to prevent CEOs from walking away with huge severance packages. By discussing publicly the very compromise elements that Congressional Democrats were fighting for behind the scenes, Obama has appeared to be driving the debate, and now he is positioned to talk about “his” issues having formed the backbone of the package.

Obama’s biggest concern right now is the appearance that he got played yesterday, and that the “invitation” to come to Washington today (an offer he couldn’t refuse) threw him off his agenda. Even there, though, he retains an advantage, because McCain’s enlistment of Bush as a tag-team partner in his political gamesmanship doesn’t exactly help McCain’s efforts to separate himself from the monumentally unpopular president.

McCain may emerge from this scenario of his own making smelling like a rose, if only for a week or so before reality sets in again. Then again, the potential hazards are many. If the bailout package fails completely due to a lack of Republican votes, McCain is going to look like a man who couldn’t bring his own party together – and who perhaps, by politicizing the negotiations, threw the entire bailout off track. If it succeeds, Democrats most likely will find creative ways to use these events as one more reason to put the words “McCain” and “Bush” in the same sentence. And if approval of the package is delayed long enough that one (or perhaps even two) debates are thrown off schedule, or if McCain fails to appear in an event that actually takes place Friday night, he will become the man who impeded the public’s ability to choose its next president because he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

Of course, I’ve spent the past four years expecting Bush and Cheney to find some excuse for cancelling the 2008 election so they can remain in power indefinitely. Yesterday, Bush and McCain seem to have plotted the next best thing. (By the way, it may be purely a coincidence that Zimbabwean president/dictator Robert Mugabe appeared at the United Nations today. I wonder if he had a chance to give foreign-leader meet-and-greeter Sarah Palin some tips on stealing elections? Or if she gave some to him?)