July 20, 2008 Op-Ed Columnist It’s the Economic Stupidity, Stupid By FRANK RICH THE best thing to happen to John McCain was for the three network anchors to leave him in the dust this week while they chase Barack Obama on his global Lollapalooza tour. Were voters forced to actually focus on Mr. McCain’s response to our spiraling economic crisis at home, the prospect of his ascension to the Oval Office could set off a panic that would make the IndyMac Bank bust in Pasadena look as merry as the Rose Bowl.
“In a time of war,” Mr. McCain said last week, “the commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve.” Fair enough, but he imparted this wisdom in a speech that was almost a year behind Mr. Obama in recognizing Afghanistan as the central front in the war against Al Qaeda. Given that it took the deadliest Taliban suicide bombing in Kabul since 9/11 to get Mr. McCain’s attention, you have to wonder if even General Custer’s learning curve was faster than his.
Mr. McCain still doesn’t understand that we can’t send troops to Afghanistan unless they’re shifted from Iraq. But simple math, to put it charitably, has never been his forte. When it comes to the central front of American anxiety — the economy — his learning curve has flat-lined.
In 2000, he told an interviewer that he would make up for his lack of attention to “those issues.” As he entered the 2008 campaign, Mr. McCain was still saying the same, vowing to read “Greenspan’s book” as a tutorial. Last weekend, the resolutely analog candidate told The New York Times he is at last starting to learn how “to get online myself.” Perhaps he’ll retire his abacus by Election Day.
Mr. McCain’s fiscal ineptitude has received so little scrutiny in some press quarters that his chief economic adviser, the former Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, got a free pass until the moment he self-immolated on video by whining about “a nation of whiners.” The McCain-Gramm bond, dating back 15 years, is more scandalous than Mr. Obama’s connection with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Mr. McCain has been so dependent on Mr. Gramm for economic policy that he sent him to newspaper editorial board meetings, no doubt to correct the candidate’s numbers much as Joe Lieberman cleans up after his confusions of Sunni and Shia.
Just two weeks before publicly sharing his thoughts about America’s “mental recession,” Mr. Gramm laid out equally incendiary views in a Wall Street Journal profile that portrayed him as “almost certainly” the McCain choice for Treasury secretary. Mr. Gramm said that the former chief executive of AT&T, Ed Whitacre, was “probably the most exploited worker in American history” since he received only a $158 million pay package rather than the “billions” he deserved for his success in growing Southwestern Bell.
But no one in the news media seemed to notice Mr. Gramm’s naked expression of the mind-set he’d bring to a McCain White House. And few journalists have vetted the presumptive Treasury secretary’s post-Senate history as an executive at UBS. The stock of that banking giant has lost 70 percent of its value in a year after its reckless adventures in the subprime lending market. It’s now fending off federal investigation for helping the megarich avoid taxes.
Mr. McCain made a big show of banishing Mr. Gramm after his whining “gaffe,” but it’s surely at most a temporary suspension. When the candidate said back in January that there’s nobody he knows who is stronger on economic issues than his old Senate pal, he was telling the truth. Left to his own devices — or those of his new No. 1 economic surrogate, Carly Fiorina — Mr. McCain is clueless. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, a supporter, said that Mr. McCain’s latest panacea for high gas prices, offshore drilling, is snake oil — and then announced his availability to serve as energy czar in an Obama administration.
The term flip-flopping doesn’t do justice to Mr. McCain’s self-contradictory economic pronouncements because that implies there’s some rational, if hypocritical, logic at work. What he serves up instead is plain old incoherence, as if he were compulsively consulting one of those old Magic 8 Balls. In a single 24-hour period in April, Mr. McCain went from saying there’s been “great economic progress” during the Bush presidency to saying “Americans are not better off than they were eight years ago.” He reversed his initial condemnation of mortgage bailouts in just two weeks.
In February Mr. McCain said he would balance the federal budget by the end of his first term even while extending the gargantuan Bush tax cuts. In April he said he’d accomplish this by the end of his second term. In July he’s again saying he’ll do it in his first term. Why not just say he’ll do it on Inauguration Day? It really doesn’t matter since he’s never supplied real numbers that would give this promise even a patina of credibility.
Mr. McCain’s plan for Social Security reform is “along the lines that President Bush proposed.” Or so he said in March. He came out against such “privatization” in June (though his policy descriptions still support it). Last week he indicated he isn’t completely clear on what Social Security does. He called the program’s premise — young taxpayers foot the bill for their elders (including him) — an “absolute disgrace.”
Given that Mr. McCain’s sole private-sector job was a fleeting stint in public relations at his father-in-law’s beer distributorship, he comes by his economic ignorance honestly. But there’s no A team aboard the Straight Talk Express to fill him in. His campaign economist, the former Bush adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, could be found in the June 5 issue of American Banker suggesting even at that late date that we still don’t know “the depth of the housing crisis” and proposing that “monitoring is the right thing to do in these circumstances.”
Ms. Fiorina, the ubiquitous new public face of McCain economic policy, adds nothing to the mix beyond her incessant display of corporate jargon, from “trend lines” to “start-ups.” Before she was fired at Hewlett-Packard, its stock had declined 50 percent during her five-plus years in charge. She missed earning projections — by 23 percent in one quarter — much as she now misrepresents both the Obama and McCain records. This month she said Mr. McCain wanted to require insurance plans to cover birth control medications along with Viagra, when in fact he had voted against it.
Ms. Fiorina received a $42 million payout (half in cash) from H.P., according to a shareholders’ subsequent lawsuit. With this inspiring résumé, she now aspires to be Mr. McCain’s running mate. So does the irrepressible Mitt Romney, who actually was a business whiz before serving as Massachusetts’s governor. Beltway wisdom has it that the addition of such a corporate star will remedy Mr. McCain’s fiscal flatulence.
But Mr. Romney, while more plausible than Ms. Fiorina, is hardly what America wants at this desperate time. His leveraged buyout dealings as co-founder of Bain Capital induced plant closings, mass layoffs and outsourcing. If Mr. McCain truly intends to “put our country’s interests” above politics and reach across the aisle to move the nation forward, as he constantly tells us, why not go for a vice president who’s the very best fit for the huge challenges at hand?
The obvious choice would be Michael Bloomberg — who, as a former Republican turned independent, would necessitate that Mr. McCain reach only halfway across the aisle, and to someone who is his friend rather than a vanquished rival he is learning to tolerate.
Romney vs. Bloomberg is not a close contest. Bloomberg L.P. has roughly three times the revenues and employees of Bain & Company, where Mr. Romney ultimately served as chief executive. Mr. Romney rescued the Salt Lake City Olympics while running it in 2002, but Mayor Bloomberg revitalized New York, the nation’s largest metropolis, after the most devastating attack in our history. The city he manages has more than twice the budget of Mr. Romney’s state.
Yes, Mr. Bloomberg is a closet Democrat and an alpha dog who doesn’t want to be a second banana. And his views on gay civil rights and abortion would roil the G.O.P. base. But Mr. Romney shared some of those same views before he flip-flopped, and besides, these are not ordinary times. Millions of Americans are losing their homes and jobs. Whole industries are going belly up. The national crisis at hand, not yesterday’s culture wars, should drive the vice-presidential pick.
Mr. McCain reminds us every day how principled he is. That presumably means he’d risk a revolt by his party’s dwindling agents of intolerance and do everything in his power to persuade Mr. Bloomberg to join his ticket in the spirit of patriotic sacrifice. The politics could be advantageous too. A Bloomberg surprise could impress independents and keep the television audience tuned in to a G.O.P. convention that will unfold in the shadow of Mr. Obama’s address to 75,000 screaming fans in Denver.
But this is fantasy political baseball, not reality. Mr. McCain, sad to say, hung up his old maverick’s spurs the day he embraced the Bush tax cuts he had once opposed as “too tilted to the wealthy.” And Mr. Bloomberg? It’s hard to picture a titan who built his empire on computer terminals investing any capital, political or otherwise, in a chief executive who is still learning how to do, as Mr. McCain puts it, “a Google.”