Letters at 3AM
Zigzag Economics: On Thursday, Sept. 11, John McCain told a ServiceNation forum, "Our economy is broken" (The New York Times, Sept. 17, p.21). The following Monday, Sept. 15, he famously said (not for the first time), "The fundamentals of our economy are strong," – after a weekend of chaos in some of our central financial institutions. Merrill Lynch failed, Bank of America purchased it, no one could save Lehman Brothers, and AIG admitted it was in trouble. Monday afternoon McCain backpedaled about "fundamentals." Tuesday morning he decided the economy was in "a total crisis." His Tuesday solution? A commission to study the crisis. Later on Tuesday, AIG was in bigger trouble. McCain opposed a federal bailout. Wednesday, after the Fed announced its $85 billion taxpayer-financed AIG bailout, McCain agreed it was the right thing to do. His Thursday solution to the crisis: fire the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and remind Americans that Barack Obama will raise taxes – though, in reality, "Mr. Obama would offer most Americans a tax cut three times the size of what Mr. McCain proposes" (The New York Times, Sept. 18, p.22).
Economic zigzagging isn't new for John McCain. "As recently as January, [he] argued ... that Americans were better off than they were eight years ago; by this summer he had released an advertisement that said 'we're worse off than we were four years ago'" (The New York Times, Sept. 17, p.1).
Maybe McCain has trouble making up his economic mind because his "chief economic advisers" are the likes of John Thain, CEO of now-defunct Merrill Lynch. "Individuals associated with Merrill Lynch ... [are] Mr. McCain's largest contributor, collectively," no doubt, because McCain "has no history prior to the presidential campaign of advocating steps to tighten standards on investment firms" (The New York Times, Sept. 16, p.1). He also opposed government oversight of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae (The New York Times, Sept. 18, p.22). Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had required taxpayer bailouts earlier this month because of excesses that could have been prevented by government oversight.
As recently as March, McCain stated his economic philosophy: "Our financial market approach should include encouraging increased capital in financial institutions by removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital" (The New York Times, Sept. 16, p.1). That is precisely the philosophy that got us into this mess – yet now McCain rails against Wall Street's "greed" as though he didn't enable it.
All that's consistent about John McCain's view of the American economy is his inconsistency and outright confusion.
What makes this puzzling, and not a little frightening, is that for six years McCain served as chairman – yes, chairman – of the Senate Commerce Committee. How can a person chair the Commerce Committee for years yet say, regarding economics, "I still need to be educated"? Which is what McCain admitted to The Wall Street Journal last January (WSJ.com, "Political Diary," Jan. 29). Six years wasn't enough? What good is experience if your experience teaches you nothing?
By contrast, Barack Obama "warned of the coming housing crisis" in March 2007 – five months before the crisis ballooned. Five months before most Americans (including me) finally learned to define "subprime" (The New York Times, Sept. 16, p.1).
Lukewarm Alaska: Sarah Palin has definite, forceful enthusiasms but only lately has she been enthusiastic about John McCain. Newsweek, Sept. 15, p.28: "Only a year ago ... Gov. Palin told Newsweek that she wasn't enthusiastic about anyone in the GOP field. ... When the GOP held its Alaska caucus on Feb. 5, Palin didn't bother to endorse a candidate. ... Weeks later, even after the other Republican contenders had dropped out of the race, Palin still had not endorsed McCain." When McCain allows journalists to question her, perhaps she'll tell us why. It can't be that McCain's not far enough to the right. Independents, take note: "A statistical analysis of Mr. McCain's recent voting record, available at www.voteview.com, ranks him as the Senate's third most conservative member" (The New York Times, March 13, 2006, p.23). So conservative, in fact, that in the early days of the Iraq war, "Mr. McCain even volunteered that he would have given the same job [the vice presidency] to Mr. Cheney" (The New York Times, Aug. 17, p.1) – which gives substance to Obama's claim that four years of McCain would be four more years of Bush.
Little Big Alaska: After McCain chose Sarah Palin for his running mate, a talking head (I wasn't quick enough to catch his name) told Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, "She runs a big state, the biggest in the country, in fact" (Studio B With Shepard Smith, Sept. 4). That's become a popular factoid, but it's true only if you're talking square miles. If you're talking anything else, as a state Alaska is minuscule.
The Economist (Sept. 6, p.40) and Newsweek (Sept. 15, p.28) number Alaska's population at 670,000. According to Wikipedia, Austin's population is 743,074 – 70,000 more citizens than reside in Alaska. I would imagine that governing a mutliethnic, multifactioned polity like Austin is more difficult than governing a not nearly so multipolity like Alaska, but let's say the level of difficulty is the same. Sarah Palin has governed Alaska for two years. Would anyone believe a two-year mayor of Austin is qualified to be vice president, and perhaps president, of the United States? Yet, in effect, that is what John McCain asked us to believe when he chose as his running mate a two-year governor of Alaska.
Of course, Palin was also a two-term mayor of the now-famous town of Wasilla, Alaska, and her record has been seriously touted. "During her terms, Wasilla had a population of about 5,000. ... As mayor, she told her hometown paper ... 'It's not rocket science. It's [a budget of] $6 million and 53 employees'" (The New York Times, Sept. 6, p.1). Whether that total includes Wasilla's City Council of five is unclear (www.cityofwasilla.com). Even if it does, The Austin Chronicle has more people on its staff. It may be as difficult to run a small town as it is to run a large weekly newspaper, but (with apologies to my editors) these experiences do not prepare one for the presidency of the United States.
That the American electorate must even consider such an issue is an unprecedented embarrassment.
Matters of Health: McCain's health plan "would treat employer-paid health benefits as income that employees would have to pay taxes on" (The New York Times, Sept. 16, p.29). We'd have to pay taxes on our health benefits?! Is somebody kidding?
Matters of Judgment: McCain fired his first campaign staff. And his second. He's on his third in 14 months, "unlike Democratic rival Barack Obama, who has had the same top aides since he started running for president early last year" (USA Today, Sept. 3, p.9). Hillary Clinton, too, had to fire principals on her first staff. I have my doubts about Barack Obama, but facts are facts: He chose better, and he did it the first time.
Ironies of Experience: On their records, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and Hillary Clinton were my preferences for president. I have been, and I remain, critical of the Democrats' nominee. But it would be churlish not to recognize that, as of this writing, the man has not once stumbled. Nor lost his cool. Nor made a serious gaffe. So I must admit: Playing a high-stakes game in the national spotlight 24/7 for years on end – that's what presidents do. To play the game gracefully and with accurate judgment – that's what is wanted in a president. I fully realize the irony – the high comedy, if you like – of a reality in which running for president may equip one for the presidency. But this campaign has run for two years and has been a campaign of unprecedented intensity. Its unique demands have schooled and tested Obama's readiness. Dripping with paradox though the fact may be, it is no longer true that Barack Obama has no presidential-level experience.