It was not too long ago that conservatives were salivating about the prospect of running against Barack Obama. They were certain he could easily be painted as a tax-and-spend liberal and that a right-of-center economic message presented by an non-doctrinaire Republican might be just what their party needed to pull off an upset. But then the economy melted and, worse, they discovered that they had nominated someone with no discernible economic vision.
Instead, they have watched in abject horror as McCain has presented a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, a heaping of me-too-ism and a non-stop diet of earmark minutiae. No wonder conservatives are depressed.
McCain stunned conservatives in the second debate by trotting out a $300 billion plan for the government to purchase mortgages and help homeowners renegotiate their terms to avoid foreclosure. Obama gleefully pointed to conservative critics who puzzled over why the government need provide this service and how this would logistically work. And how did purchasing mortgages at full value from lenders fit with McCain’s own warnings about protecting the tax payers? It seemed more ill-conceived than anything Obama had set forth.
Nor did McCain distinguish himself in any fashion on Treasury Secretary Paulson’s $700 billion rescue plan. His support for the rescue plan with some proposed revisions — more oversight, more transparency and limits on executive compensation — mirrored Obama’s. If both presidential candidates were on the same page (on what was then believed to be the critical move to stem the growing crisis) what precisely was so extreme about Obama? It was getting hard to tell.
But nothing left conservatives so infuriated as McCain’s inability or unwillingness to provide a compelling attack on the Democrats’ role in the financial crisis, and specifically their failure to reign in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They longed for McCain to go after Democrats — who cheered Freddie and Fannie’s ill-fated policy of guaranteeing subprime mortgages and who received gobs of campaign donations from these same institutions (and maybe even a “Friend of Angelo” discounted mortgage from other lenders which they were supposed to be regulating). But McCain did not connect the dots in the first two debates and has only recently begun to make this case to voters.
Instead, McCain has seemed obsessed with earmarks. Certainly, fiscal conservatives have no love for pork and regret Congressional Republicans’ loss of frugality. But in the middle of a complete meltdown of the financial system McCain’s insistence on dwelling on bear DNA and a Chicago planetarium seemed misplaced and, frankly, out of touch. Why was he talking about a tiny sliver of government spending while condoning a massive government expansion into the financial sector?
Occasionally, there have been glimmers of hope for fiscal conservatives. McCain gamely explained his market-oriented health care plan in the second debate. He has questioned why any tax increase, even one ostensibly only on the “rich,” is a good idea in the face of a daunting a recession. And he has sporadically raised Obama’s large domestic spending plans on energy development and health care as reasons for concern.
Still, the critique doesn’t quite hold together, in part because his own vision has been so inconsistent and disjointed. The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes summed up: “Three weeks out from the 2008 election and John McCain’s campaign has no discernible central theme, no succinct answer to the most basic question voters ask as they consider their choice: Why should I choose you over the other guy?”
Now, conservatives should not be entirely surprised. As Mitt Romney pointed out in the primary, McCain never fancied himself as an economic guru. And unlike Obama, who sought out top flight advisers like Robert Rubin, Paul Volker and Warren Buffett, McCain could not seem to snare any of the leading economic conservative thinkers who had populated his Republican opponents’ campaigns. Lacking his own big ideas, he also lacked a big-idea adviser to help guide him.
Republicans may be deluding themselves into thinking that even a more robust conservative economic vision would be enough to sway voters in this election cycle. In the face of an unpopular president and a cratering economy it would be a Herculean task for any Republican to hold on to the White House. But with an economic vision as feeble as the one put forth by their nominee, many are left wondering what might have been.
In the waning weeks of the campaign, there is word that McCain may toss out some more tax-relief plans or perhaps a loan program for small business to help arrest the plunge in the markets — and in his own poll numbers.
His speech on Monday attempted to describe a sharper contrast between his tax and trade policies and Obama’s. It’s an open question, however, whether this will be seen as a compelling alternative vision, and whether it is weeks, if not months, late in coming.
Most voters may have already decided that their best chance for economic recovery rests with changing the party in the White House. Conservatives may not agree, but they can certainly understand.