You're in charge -- what should John McCain (and Sarah Palin) do in the final four weeks? Barack Obama (and Joe Biden)? Previously, Welch and Crayton discussed the possibility of a "Bradley effect,” McCain's chances of catching Obama, the changing demographics of the electorate and how effectively the candidates are appealing to voters.
Maverick to me one more time Point: Matt Welch
True story: When John McCain fired half his campaign staff in July 2007 -- which, unhappily, was precisely when my book was due -- I had the occasion to enjoy a five-martini lunch with one of his trusted advisors, who happens to be a friend. I was wrestling with my conscience, not wanting to publish a super-critical, what-if-he-became-president book about an American hero if he dropped out the race. But my pal (perhaps not understanding just how critical the thing was going to be) gave me a great pep talk about taking it to the finish line for the sake of democracy. In return, I offered some unsolicited advice about where McCain should go next with a campaign then haunted by various death watches. "It's about Iraq, stupid," I said. "He needs to talk about nothing else but foreign policy."
McCain was running then in a primary election (and, unlike 2000, he actually intended to win), so the best thing to do was ignore all the many, many reasons why various tribes of Republicans have grown to distrust or even hate him (campaign finance "reform," immigration "reform," the Gang of 14 judicial compromise and heavy petting with the dreaded media), and instead just triple down on an issue both popular with the GOP base and of genuine deep personal interest to McCain himself. There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that my advice was never heeded or even transmitted. But within six weeks, McCain embarked on a "Never Surrender" tour, and all the way up until about the New Hampshire primary he was treated like a kindly old veteran who was right about the war but not a serious threat to the coming Romney-Giuliani juggernaut.
Because all Barack Obama has to do to win the election at this point is a little four-corners offense, and because I didn't exactly write the book on Mr. Hopey, I'll reserve my sage advice to the only candidate in the race with a chance of keeping me in print for the next four years:
John McCain, it's time to bring the maverick out of retirement for one last caper.
It's a testament to just how lousy McCain has run his campaign that he managed to squander his decades-long cred (both deserved and not) as an independent, a country-first guy and a straight talker. Lingering sentiment along those lines was enough to win him the GOP primary (in lieu of actual Republican votes), but all he's been doing in the general election is frittering away the support he absolutely needs to win in a year Republicans aren't supposed to. He needs to keep appealing to independents, centrist Democrats and the media, but instead he's been alienating all of the above with brazen flip-floppery, fatigue-inducing campaign stunts and the glaring absence of dramatic truth-telling during the biggest financial panic since the 1970s.
Think of how he could have reshaped this week's debate. Instead of making the desperate, socialist gambit of offering to buy up every bad mortgage in the country, what if McCain would have answered Tom Brokaw's question about priorities in the Grim New Era with something a little more like this:
"My friends, I've done and said a lot of things these past four years to become president. I even believe in some of them. But at a time of possible economic meltdown, you need an adult to talk to you straight about economic policy. So here goes: My math doesn't add up. My promises are extravagant, and most wouldn't pass a Democratic Congress anyway. We have debts no honest country can pay, military deployments no volunteer army at current levels can continue fighting and entitlements that are going to begin crippling the budget as the baby boomers retire. We've had eight years of fantasy-based budgeting and can no longer afford it. So until we get our finances under control, until we stop growing government and the regulatory state at rates not seen since Lyndon Johnson, until we learn how to pay for such predictable outlays as war costs without circumventing the budget process and larding things up with pork, I promise you all exactly this: nothing. It sounds harsh, but drastic times call for drastic measures, and only straight talk, not campaign fantasia, can get us through this mess."
Wouldn't you believe a speech like that? Doesn't that sound a little bit like the guy who seemed so attractive to non-Republicans back in 1999 and 2000? Hell, he might win over some Republicans with rhetoric that reflected something other than the disaster socialism we're getting from the tawdry last days of the Bush administration, which has been largely abetted by both major-party presidential candidates.
I do a lot of talk radio, both left and right, and I'm amazed by the literal unanimity I hear from people against the bailout and the idea that the federal government needs to soften the blow from every bad bet made in the private sector; that somehow it's the Treasury secretary's job to make sure all assets appreciate forever. People seem to understand intrinsically that a bubble has burst, that even now housing prices are still up 40% in real terms than they were 11 years ago, and that throwing trillions of government dollars at the problem will just delay the inevitable bell-tolling of a market that plain got goofy for a few years there -- thanks largely to the very kind of government involvement now being proposed to "fix" it.
On this, the transcendent issue of the day, McCain has offered nothing much more than Wall Street bashing and cheap campaign theatrics. Because Obama has basically offered the same, minus the drama-queen act, it suggests an opening.
The bailout has never been popular; that's why it failed in the House of Representatives that first time through. Americans at this point have more faith in, and understanding of, the risk-reward cycles of capitalism than their major-party candidates seem to. Though no crash course is going to force McCain into understanding even the basics about how profit motive and finance-for-the-sake-of-finance have so greatly benefited both ours and the global economy for the last two centuries, he could pull the "straight talk" jacket out of cold storage and merely start with the antiquated notion that the federal government remember its Clinton-era efforts of at least trying to live within its means. He already hates earmarks, favors international trade and thinks the entitlement programs need root-and-branch reform. All it would take now is a little mea culpa acknowledging that even his own campaign doesn't believe its economic numbers and that from now on we're doing things this way -- starting with a flat-lined freeze on government spending, not even adjusted for inflation, for the first four years of the McCain-Palin administration.
It would take real bravery and a counter-puncher's skill to look a financial and ideological panic in the face and declare that the answer, for once, is not more government but less, organized more efficiently. But Americans are ready for a cold slap in the face from a politician they can actually trust. They used to trust McCain.
And they could again if he realized that, no matter what all the cool young David Brooks clones might say, no Republican is ever going to successfully out-pander a smooth-talking Democrat when it comes to promising unaffordable goodies to that great and theoretical "middle class." You want a truly "game changing" stunt, senator? Forget unveiling some new brash nationalization plan at the next debate or replacing Sarah Palin with the Rally Monkey. How about just telling the harsh economic truth, something that Americans seem much more willing to discuss and accept than the two pander bears running for president.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and author of "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick."
Put 'em in front of Congress and Americans for a British-style Q&A Matt,
Once more, thanks to The Times for providing a platform for serious dialogue about public matters. I have really enjoyed the exchange, Matt, although I'm not entirely sure whether we've disagreed loudly enough for some of the readers (but maybe that's a good thing).
Because I sincerely liked the unconventional nature of your Thursday post (that's a sincere compliment), I thought I would finish off the week by posing a set of questions for the candidates as they complete the home stretch of this campaign.
Just between you and me, one of the guilty pleasures in my life now and again is watching C-SPAN's presentation of "Question Time" in Britain's House of Commons, which I think is one aspect of British democracy that we really ought to adopt in our own system. As you probably know, the prime minister submits himself to a wide range of questions from the members of Parliament, including the opposition parties.
I find several aspects of these weekly sessions appealing. First, the inquiries help to keep national leaders honest. As we've seen for a while now in this country, the Washington press corps do not always do the best job of maintaining a watchful eye on political power. Why not create an additional unscripted forum for the administration to defend its positions? The exchanges could help assure a sense of accountability to Congress and the public for executive policy decisions and campaign promises. At the same time, the questioning could also provide leaders themselves with an important, perhaps even humbling, reminder about the part of the country that disagrees with them.
Such questioning would have specific benefits for the public. For instance, it can build voter confidence about the ability of our leaders to explain and persuade. Almost every British prime minister during my lifetime has been skilled (entertaining, even) in responding to hostile questions from Parliament. The substance of their answers may not entirely convince the questioner, but they characteristically clarify the issue for the viewers. I think that this kind of give-and-take would drastically improve the discourse in American politics. Beyond riffs on the intentionally hazy concepts of "straight talk" and "change we need," I think many Americans want to know more of the specifics about what the next president realistically can accomplish in office.
Most important, such questioning can demonstrate how difficult the act of governing actually is. I hold doubts that either of these candidates will be able to "hope" or "maverick" (as Tina Fey would say) Washington into a fundamentally different place overnight -- or perhaps even the next four years. On the other hand, I think both candidates have the capacity to encourage the public to set realistic and attainable expectations for reform. A leader who openly grapples with a tough question about policy indicates his belief that voters are mature adults who can accept complexity. This is a large country with a multitude of economic, social and cultural interests. And the problems we currently face (let alone the "unknowables" lurking around the corner) are some of the most challenging in decades. Governance is seldom flashy, and it sometimes requires hard calls -- some of which inevitably will be wrong. A leader who can speak in a manner that conveys the gravity of problems and the burdens involved in making a choice, I think, can serve the public good in the long term.
So in that spirit, here is one question for each of the candidates that I'd love for them to consider answering forthrightly -- if not now, then in office:
"You have stated that you believe that healthcare is a right, that each American should have access to an insurance package akin to what members of Congress enjoy. Yet you only endorse a system that would require universal participation among children, not adults. If healthcare is a right, then what justifies limiting the scope of the new system?"
"You have proposed making the Bush tax cuts permanent, which would add significant deficit to an already cash-strapped federal budget. If you promise to cut spending in your first term in office, from what specific programs -- beyond defense budget pork -- will you find the additional money to cover the shortfall from the tax cuts? And if you can't find this money, will you commit to suspending any proposed tax cuts?"
Kareem Crayton is an associate professor of law and political science at USC. He is an expert on election law and serves as a consultant for redistrictinggame.com.