Missing From The McCain Comeback Plan: Straight Talk

Bill Scher

Sen. John McCain is losing. He said so himself in his speech yesterday. Candidates don’t usually admit such a thing, so that qualifies as straight talk.

But most voters don’t want straight talk about political prospects. They want it about the issues that affect them directly, first and foremost, the economy.

McCain is losing because of the economy. His campaign said so. When it pulled out of Michigan, a campaign advisor told the Washington Post it was because Michigan is an “economic basket case.” The campaign was implicitly saying it could not compete on the subject.

McCain has some grasp that conceding defeat on the economy is a mistake, as evidenced yesterday by his delivery of an economic speech.

In the speech, he sought to connect with the rising populism, talking about the “reckless conduct” of Wall Street, promising “responsible regulation” because “the moment requires that government act.”

But I suspect after being hammered as out of touch for repeatedly insisting that the “fundamentals of our economy our strong,” and calling himself “fundamentally a deregulator,” he needs to offer much more dramatic straight talk to convince voters he truly gets what went wrong and has a vision to put the economy back on track.

Straight talk would include taking personal responsibility for his votes that deregulated the financial markets.

He would not need to take all the blame. As today’s Washington Post details, deregulation was a bipartisan effort in the late 1990s and 2000. But acknowledging and learning from mistakes is a hallmark of a strong leader. McCain is talking regulation now, it would have more resonance if he admitted he is a convert.

Straight talk would involve making a cleaner break from the policies of President Bush.

He’s trying, saying the last eight years amounted to “waiting for our luck to change.” Yet in his speech, McCain undermined his break-with-Bush goal by making the same exact tax cut arguments that Bush made through his presidency — tax cuts for wealthy investors will lead to more jobs. That conservative tax policy has been in place for eight years and clearly did not create jobs and strengthen the economy. So the old tax cut arguments have lost their populist punch and now fall flat.

Straight talk would also require dropping plans for a spending freeze.

Because his other economic message in the last debate was a smart one — energy independence — but that goal requires public investment, not a spending freeze. He talks of supporting clean energy, as well as “clean coal” and building 45 nuclear power plants. The $18 billion in earmarks he wants to eliminate would only pay for one nuclear power plant. Where would the rest come from? Only straight talk could tell us.

Some might argue that McCain shouldn’t even try to compete on the economy, and should stick to character-based attacks. But that would be just as foolish as Democrats during Bush’s first term saying they couldn’t compete on national security so they would only talk about the economy.

Politicians don’t always get to decide what issues on our people’s minds. If people are worried about being blown up, you better have something to say about how you would prevent that. If people are worried about our economic foundation crumbling at our feet, you better have something to say about how you shore it up.

And you better talk straight when you say it.

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