John McCain

What's So Republican About These Economics

"Reform" night didn't really mention any McCain reforms, but it did celebrate economic incoherence

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In all the hubbub of last night's Sarah Palin coming-out party, the theme of the night–reform–got lost. That was probably just as well for John McCain, since he's relying so heavily on the Great Man theory of politics, which values above all virtue over messy specifics.

But it was also convenient to laud McCain's "real reform" record without actually mentioning any of McCain's real reforms, because Republicans tend to hate what few real reforms McCain has made.

Take the speech-regulating, First Amendment-busting McCain-Feingold Act, a law so deservedly reviled in the Xcel Center that the only speaker all week to even utter the phrase "campaign finance" was a Democrat, Joe Lieberman. Or the procedural "Gang of 14" compromise to speed the way Washington confirms judges, an act of reform that once served as a deal-breaker for back-in-the-tank Republicans like Hugh Hewitt.

And McCain's failed proposals have fared little better with Republicans. The McCain-Lieberman bill for a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions, which is something that would have a decent chance at becoming law with a Democratic Congress? Not so popular among the free-market base. And McCain's enthusiasm for comprehensive immigration reform nearly strangled his candidacy in the crib.

So in lieu of practical examples of McCain reforms last night, the Republicans waxed at length about economic policy issues, an area where you'd think they'd do pretty well for those of us with preferences for limited government and free-market economics.

Well, think again. In campaign-vetted speech after campaign-vetted speech, Republicans (and a sprinkling of Democrats) sketched out a vision of economics that could charitably described as incoherent.

Carolyn Dunn, a "farm partner and community volunteer," stood up for two policies I haven't seen promoted since covering Ralph Nader: "Food security" and government-sponsored repopulation of the American midwest. "I care deeply about the food supply in this country. I do not want us to rely on unsafe shipments from overseas, where little oversight and none of the same standards apply," she said. "John McCain will work to restore rural prosperity by investing in renewable energy and high-tech connectivity, and will prioritize policies that will revitalize rural America…. Let's stop perpetuating the idea that to be successful you need to move to the big city."

Dunn wasn't the only one invoking the image of scary foreigners. Even Mitt Romney, the guy who was supposed to be the economic brains in the Republican primary field, exhibited one of the worst interpretations of the Invisible Hand I have ever seen, asserting that "China is acting like Adam Smith on steroids."

Luis Fortuno, resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, gave an energy-security speech that would have been right at home at the Democratic National Convention, if only it had contained the saw about "five million green jobs." "Under President McCain's leadership," Fortuno said, "we will become a leader in the new global green economy; by protecting our environment and addressing climate change; by promoting energy efficiency; and, finally, by cracking down on the speculative pricing of oil." Nassty Speculatorsses!

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina piled on, hinting at McCain's long record of meddling into the affairs of Wall Street: "John McCain believes that all institutions of power and wealth—whether they are government agencies or global corporations—must be both transparent and accountable to those they serve."

Renee Amoore, a "nurse, entrepreneur, and small business owner," posited that if you want anything to be better, whether it's the federal government's responsibility or not, McCain's your man. "If you want to fight childhood obesity through physical education and nutritional meals in schools, then you are a McCain voter," she said. "If you are sick and tired of all the DC yak-yak-yak, and realize that every day action is delayed, problems just get worse…If you want action, McCain's your man."

On this last point, Amoore is actually correct. If you think every problem should have a "fix me, president!" sign taped on it, then John McCain is indeed your man, since he is much more of an issue-by-issue problem-solver than someone who springs from a fixed philosophy about the proper role of limited government.

These were not the dominant sentiments on Reform Day. Far from it. There was plenty to cheer about as well, in rhetoric advocating lower taxes, smaller government, freer trade, and a much more active veto pen (the latter of which may be the single most attractive prospect of a McCain presidency). But as the last eight years of largely Republican governance taught us, talking about smaller government is no substitute for actually reducing its size.

The phrase "the devil is in the details" was tailor-made for the United States Senate. John McCain may have some noble reform impulses—wanting to overhaul and humanize the country's Byzantine immigration policy would be one example—but by the end of the sausage-making process the reforms bearing his name often end up limiting freedom more than unleashing it.

More worryingly is that the man who famously said "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues" (and in fact said it twice, to opposing audiences, as a way of justifying two opposing positions on tax cuts), has an active career as a regulator, and few demonstrated strong principles on economic policy aside from a heartening fondness for free trade and bracing opposition to government waste. Last night's economic incoherence was a feature, not a bug, and if McCain presides over a Democratic Congress, there is no real telling what a Man of Action will do.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.

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  1. Not to get off the Republican topic but . . . aren’t all politicians by definition economically incoherent?

  2. doom
    Dooom
    DOOOOM

  3. ‘Reason’ still doesn’t get it.

    There are not 57,000 corporate lobbyists in Washington to LIMIT government involvement in markets – they are there to PROMOTE government involvement in the “free” market.

  4. As a piggyback to shrike. Most of those lobbyists are there happily finding ways to raise barriers.

    Where’s the Reason article on de-homesteading the plains? The nation doesn’t need to subsidize small towns that should die.

  5. “There was plenty to cheer about as well, in rhetoric advocating lower taxes, smaller government, freer trade, and a much more active veto pen (the latter of which may be the single most attractive prospect of a McCain presidency). But as the last eight years of largely Republican governance taught us, talking about smaller government is no substitute for actually reducing its size.”

    What specifically has McCain said, or done, to show that he’s willing to reduce the size of government? Is there some department that he’s said he plans on eliminating, or some plan to reduce the size and scope of gov’t by stating that he believes this oversized gov’t should not be in the business of traversing the globe to rid the world of Evil, or in any meaningful way to reduce our country’s staggering national debt(which is a massive tax increase far outweighing the burden faced by income, capital gains, payroll tax, etc)?
    It seems that the only difference between Obama’s and McCain’s designs for the federal gov’t is that both believe in expanding, or at least holding the line, on the scope of gov’t, yet Obama at least has some type of plan to pay for all this.
    Does anyone believe that a McCain veto of a farm bill or any other pork-filled bill can survive an overide by Congress?

  6. few demonstrated strong principles on economic policy aside from a heartening fondness for free trade and bracing opposition to government waste.

    Could do worse, though. Probably will.

    My problem is not him admitting that he’s not an expert on the economy. My problem is when he acts like he thinks he is when regulating.

  7. Stop criticizing McCain. That’s Sexist!

  8. McCain not only won’t reduce the Federal government by even one agency, the media probably won’t ask him which useless department like Education/Energy/Etc. he’d eliminate if he could. He’s going to expand government, and the only good news is that inflation’s going to force him to expand it less than it’s expanded in the recent past. I hope…

  9. Does anyone else get the feeling Matt Welch doesn’t care for John McCain?

  10. It is extremely difficult goddammed impossible for me to continue to accept that the GOP is the party of limited government or fiscal responsibility.

    Food scarcity? WTF?
    U.S. Agricultural Trade, Calendar Year in megabucks
    CY Export Imports Balance
    1984 37,804 19,334 18,470
    1985 29,041 19,968 9,073
    1986 26,222 21,453 4,769
    1987 28,709 20,402 8,307
    1988 37,080 20,955 16,126
    1989 40,028 21,879 18,150
    1990 39,495 22,918 16,576
    1991 39,386 22,875 16,511
    1992 43,247 24,796 18,451
    1993 42,972 25,117 17,855
    1994 46,172 27,024 19,148
    1995 56,206 30,255 25,951
    1996 60,418 33,511 26,907
    1997 57,149 36,148 21,001
    1998 51,812 36,894 14,918
    1999 48,389 37,673 10,717
    2000 51,265 38,974 12,291
    2001 53,679 39,366 14,313
    2002 53,143 41,909 11,234
    2003 59,392 47,376 12,016
    2004 61,426 53,977 7,449
    2005 63,182 59,317 3,865
    2006 70,948 65,326 5,622
    2007 89,908 71,937 17,971

  11. J sub —

    Welcome to the Party.

  12. Does anyone else get the feeling Matt Welch doesn’t care for John McCain?

    Actually, Matt has stated before that he has a lot of respect for McCain, it’s just that he thinks he’d be a terrible president. Or something like that (sorry if I said that wrong, Matt).

  13. Great picture, by the way.

  14. LMNOP,
    I’m not going Dem, just giving up on the GOP as well.

  15. shrike-

    The problem is not that the lobbyists are there to promote government involvement, its that the federal government has the power to indulge them and actually restrict the markets. Take away gov’t power to interfere (by actually following the constitution) and lobbyists will be on the endangered species list.

  16. So far, I’m hoping for a McCain/Palin win followed shortly by a debilitating illnes for McCain (I won’t wish him death). Not because I am so in favor of Palin, but because I can’t stand the thought of McCain, Obama, or Biden residing in the white house for any length of time.

  17. LMNOP,
    I’m not going Dem, just giving up on the GOP as well.

    That’s not what I meant by “the Party”. I meant, welcome to those who have finally realized that small government is a lie that Republicans tell little children to grow ’em up as loyal voters.

  18. I was not angry since I came to France. Until this instant.

  19. Elemenope-4:43

    I will not upbraid you for being so dramatic and bereft of nuance! Mostly cause you are right.

  20. Thx, libmike. I try. 🙂

  21. > kinnath | September 4, 2008, 4:33pm | #
    Not because I am so in favor of Palin, but because I can’t stand the thought of McCain, Obama, or Biden residing in the white house for any length of time.

    Yeah, we need some “libertarian” who thinks that war in Iraq is God’s calling, who increased the Gov in her small town by 33% and went from a balanced budget there to $22M in debt while foisting clever earmarks for her town and trying to ban library books. Palin’s gonna be a real win over the other two.

  22. I’m sorry but the democRATS won the economic war hands down with the guy from Marion,Indiana who thinks Bush gave his job at a picture tube factory to a Chinaman and that Obama will bring the CRT factory jobs back to the USA. The single most funny moment at either convention so far.

  23. “Adam Smith on steroids”? That had the MSNers googling or most just took Mr. Smith as playing linebacker for the Redskins. Most would have not heard of the real Adam Smith at their institutions of higher learning but hey he got a mention even if he was tied to illegal substance abuse. The right wing of the left wing…..

  24. Nassty Speculatorsses?

  25. “I’m sorry but the democRATS won the economic war hands down with the guy from Marion,Indiana who thinks Bush gave his job at a picture tube factory to a Chinaman”

    Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature…

  26. There are not 57,000 corporate lobbyists in Washington to LIMIT government involvement in markets

    Not entirely true. Sure, they push barriers to entry sometimes, but they also push back against anything that will hurt their clients. Its a mixed bag.

    But lobbyists are the symptom. The Total State is the disease.

  27. But lobbyists are the symptom. The Total State is the disease.

    I probably wouldn’t say it the same way, but for the most part I actually agree with you, RC Dean. The lobbyists are there solely for their interests, whether it’s a corporation or a special interest. Sometimes that means pushing back against government interference, sometimes it means asking for more.

  28. I know! Let’s vote for the guy who said: “We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us” — that’s certain to work!!

  29. I feel as if I were the class geek looking for a prom date, and I have the choice of:

    1. 240 lb girl with acne, braces, and halitosis

    2. 350 lb girl with psoriasis, tuberculosis, cleft palate, extreme dandruff, incredible BO, and borderline personality disorder.

    Looks like I’m going stag again. 🙂

  30. However, regardless of all the laughable rumours I have heard regarding both tickets, I do know one thing.

    NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE comes out of left field and rises as quickly in the dirty world of politics as has BHO, without having done some serious wet-work for some very influential people (think Mena, Arkansas).

  31. “Last night’s economic incoherence was a feature, not a bug, and if McCain presides over a Democratic Congress, there is no real telling what a Man of Action will do.”

    Better McCain than a man who is proud of the fact he will raise taxes on everything he sees.

  32. Reading this article has put me in a bad mood. And I’m out of bourbon. Dammit.

  33. McCain says he wants to reduce government spending, but he’s shown no signs of it when Bush was presenting unbalanced budgets or requesting “emergency” funding for the costs of the Iraq War (which nobody could possibly have foreseen when they were preparing the Pentagon’s budget requests.) He’s not acknowledging that government borrowing is a tax, or that it has an impact on things like the mortgage market, and he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to the Republican base and talk straight to them that they’ll have to pay for what they’re spending. His positions sound a lot like what GHWBush called “Voodoo Economics”, only with the vigorous assertions about the Laffer Curve that Reagan made before tripling the national debt.

    The Democrats are now the Party of Fiscal Responsibility. They didn’t get that way by improving their understanding of economic fundamentals or decreasing their desire to spend money that will show up by magic; they got there by default, while the Bush Administration spent money like drunken Kennedys and the Republican Party was too chicken to tell them they had to pay for it.

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