John McCain's plan to ignore the economy

No "election-year politics," promises the senator. And no substantive policy proposals, either.

Published March 25, 2008 4:47PM (EDT)

"I will not play election year politics with the housing crisis," declared John McCain in a "major" speech on the economy to be delivered Tuesday morning in the Republican-friendly confines of Orange County, Calif. The implication being, of course, that his opponents are engaged in doing precisely that -- taking advantage of the nation's deepening economic woes to score political points. Exhibit A: Hillary Clinton's "major" speech on the economy delivered in Philadelphia on Monday.

It is instructive to compare the two speeches. Clinton's speech was larded with references to previous statements she has made concerning the housing crisis and Wall Street's credit crunch that date as far back as a year ago, and was packed with specific proposals for tackling the foreclosure crisis and associated ills. One can criticize or disagree with her analysis or approach, but the record is clear: the senator from New York has been engaged with the deteriorating economy in real time. McCain, in contrast, has no such record to fall back on, and made only two substantive policy proposals in his speech.

First, it is time to convene a meeting of the nation's accounting professionals to discuss the current mark to market accounting systems. We are witnessing an unprecedented situation as banks and investors try to determine the appropriate value of the assets they are holding and there is widespread concern that this approach is exacerbating the credit crunch.

We should also convene a meeting of the nation's top mortgage lenders. Working together, they should pledge to provide maximum support and help to their cash-strapped, but credit worthy customers. They should pledge to do everything possible to keep families in their homes and businesses growing.

That's it. John McCain's economic plan is to convene a couple of meetings. Oh, and some more tax cuts. What's that I hear? The sound of Ohio voting Democratic? It's one thing to make a high-minded pledge to eschew "election-year politics." It's quite another to act willfully ignorant of the pressing concerns of millions of Americans.

The bulk of McCain's speech's recaps the broad outlines of what has transpired in the housing sector and Wall Street over the past year and reads as if cribbed from various state-of-the-economy reports previously delivered by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke. It's hard to see any of it coming as news to his audience, since Orange County was ground zero for the subprime lending industry.

McCain did say that "Capital markets work best when there is both accountability and transparency. In the case of our current crisis, both were lacking ... When we commit taxpayer dollars as assistance, it should be accompanied by reforms that ensure that we never face this problem again. Central to those reforms should be transparency and accountability."

If one was feeling charitable toward John McCain, one could interpret that paragraph as suggesting support for increased government oversight and regulation of the financial industry. But while Democratic legislators have been falling over themselves to suggest concrete ways to ensure more "transparency and accountability," McCain just waves at the issue. And in the course of making the sensible suggestion that financial institutions maintain "adequate capital to serve as a buffer against losses," he turns around and argues that the way to encourage that is "by removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital."

Maybe McCain is hoping that his restatement of support for a corporate tax cut and his recommendation to remove "impediments" to capital-constrained financial institutions will get him some corporate contributions for his cash-strapped campaign. He certainly can't be imagining that any swing-state voters facing ballooning credit card bills or a foreclosure notice in the mail will see anything in his speech to assuage their concerns. But perhaps that OK, because McCain's straight talk proves he's too honorable a man to play "election-year politics."

We'll see how well that works, in an election-year recession.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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