Neither of our would-be leaders covered himself in glory during the past week. A financial crisis (and for once the word “crisis” is apt) has opened beneath our feet, threatening to swallow God only knows how much of our prosperity in its maw, and the two candidates were unable to see beyond their own narrow political interests and unable to resist searching for effigies to burn.
John McCain’s posture should have been obvious: He should have presented himself as the perspicacious statesman who had foreseen the trouble and warned against it. In 2006, McCain had called for more stringent oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose failures underlie today’s unraveling. In a press release at the time McCain declared, “If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole.” He should then have outlined the kind of reforms he would undertake to prevent this from happening in the future. Had he done this, in tones more in sorrow than anger, he would have been able to reinforce his “reform” credentials without seeming opportunistic or rattled.
As it is, McCain lashed out at Wall Street: “Americans are hurting right now and there’s going to be a ripple effect of this financial crisis because of the greed and corruption and excess — and Wall Street treated the American economy like a casino.” He then recommended that SEC Chairman Chris Cox, one of the smartest and most able officials in the U.S. government, be fired. Now it may be that Chris Cox has made mistakes — who hasn’t? — but the notion that he is responsible for this mess is, to say no more, a stretch. Instead of looking decisive, McCain looked petty by singling him out.
McCain would have been better advised to aim his fire at Democrats in Congress who declined to regulate Fannie and Freddie adequately because they favored making questionable loans to so-called “underserved” populations. A bill to more strictly regulate the mortgage giants passed the Senate Banking Committee in 2005. But as Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute explains, “Democrats opposed it on a party-line vote.”
Wall Street, whether McCain likes it or not, is identified in the public mind with Republicans (though, as the Center for Responsive Politics reports, the finance, insurance, and real estate industries gave more contributions to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama earlier this year than to McCain). Still the perception endures that Republicans are the party of the rich. Railing against “greed and corruption” won’t get McCain very far. But pointing up the Democrats’ role — their cozy public/private partnerships, the multimillions made by Democrat bigwigs like Franklin Raines, Jim Johnson, and Jamie Gorelick — would certainly confound the image the Obama campaign is attempting to paint.
As for Obama, he has used the financial crisis as the pinup for Republican approaches to the economy generally, proof he says that “too many folks in Washington and on Wall Street weren’t minding the store” and plucked a couple of McCain quotes out of context for good measure. Obama heaped scorn on McCain’s comment that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong,” omitting the next words, which were “but these are very, very difficult times.” Obama (remember him? the fellow who was going to run a different kind of campaign?) also trotted out McCain’s old quote “I’m always for less regulation” without clarifying that McCain had specifically called for more regulation of Fannie and Freddie, the two quasi-governmental entities that are at the heart of the current meltdown.
Obama seems to have dropped any pretense to running an honest campaign. Virtually all of his charges against McCain now dabble in deception. Noting that McCain wants to increase competition in the health care insurance market, Obama says, “So let me get this straight — he wants to run health care like they’ve been running Wall Street.”
Now let me get this straight: the sub-prime mortgage disaster, created in Washington by politicians who wanted to increase home ownership and, yes, perpetuated by unwise gambling in the financial markets undermines the validity of competition? It really makes you wonder, when Obama invites voters to fire the “whole trickle-down, on-your-own, look-the-other-way crowd in Washington who (have) led us down this disastrous path” whether he really means capitalism itself.
– Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.