Sunday, September 21, 2008

McCain Should Bring Back the Straight Talk Express

Can a Republican married to a beer distributorship heiress win the presidency by railing against Wall Street and otherwise engaging in populist demagoguery? That doesn't seem to me to be a promising strategy. Why not engage in a little of his famed straight talk and point out that one of the causes of the current crisis was that millions of Americans borrowed recklessly and then walked away from their obligations?

Obama has followed a similarly dishonest populist tack, as even his ardent supporter Andrew Sullivan acknowledges,

Instead of telling Americans in no uncertain terms that their recklessness has consequences, he too is peddling populist blather. He too will spend money the government doesn’t have to protect small-time borrowers from the consequences of their folly. He too blames companies that operated within the rules as dictated by Congress for maximising their profits by irresponsible lending.

All the more reason for McCain to try to differentiate himself by not pandering, but that would require smarter positioning than his campaign has demonstrated over the last week. The smart thing to do now is to be statesmanlike and express support for the bipartisan rescue being negotiated this week. No more stream-of-consciousness musings about firing administration officials -- if anything, express confidence that we're in good hands with Paulson and Bernanke. The next step is to start looking ahead, for the next bounce of the ball. That means acknowledging, as Mark Cuban mentioned in his blog, that this rescue will be a fiscal game changer1. The economic proposals made by McCain and Obama that were unrealistic before won't become any more feasible after Congress allocates ~$700 billion to buy up distressed mortgage debt.

McCain can benefit from recognizing this reality first. That may require him to walk back some of his tax cut proposals, but that will probably cost him less politically than it will cost Obama to walk back his promises, simply because Obama has made more generous promises to a broader cross-section of the electorate. A Republican candidate who maintains even the faintest claim to fiscal conservatism, as McCain once did, can't beat a Democrat in a Santa Claus contest anyway, so why try? Why not propose policies that will lead to a stronger, stabler economy in the long run, and trust the American people to vote for them instead of trying to promise them a bigger free lunch than the other fellow?

1It's also important to distinguish between the fiscal response to the current crisis, which needs to be hammered out within days, and the regulatory response, which doesn't and which would benefit from a thoughtful deliberation by the next administration and the next Congress.


Anonymous said...

GOP caused this mess, they don't deserve a chance this year. Let's give the dems a shot. It can't get much worse really.

DaveinHackensack said...

I think you can find folks on the Dem side with their fingerprints on this mess as well, e.g., Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Franklin Raines, etc.