The One-Sided Idea War: The Economy

Bill Scher

A consensus is growing that Sen. John McCain’s slippage in the polls is the result of not saying much on the economy, and he needs a big economic idea to turn things around.

MSNBC’s First Read writes:

It’s a tough position McCain finds himself in: On one hand, the temptation to make Obama unelectable and drive home that point is going to be great tonight. But if McCain does it in a way that makes it easy for Obama to paint him as out of touch on the economy, he could have a hard time closing the gap.

That said, what if McCain finds a big econ issue that paints Obama in a corner and forces a big idea debate on McCain’s turf? That would be the ideal solution for McCain, the problem is finding that issue.

Conservative National Review editor Rich Lowry finds the same urgency for McCain to focus on the economy:

Not having a compelling economic message before the financial crisis hit was malpractice; now it’s madness. McCain’s pet causes of bipartisanship and earmark reform don’t qualify as such a message. Bipartisanship is an empty concept; the parties can unite just as easily to pass foolhardy laws as necessary ones. Meanwhile, only John McCain would — as he did in the first debate —steer a discussion about a complex global credit crunch onto earmarked federal spending for bear DNA research.

McCain has suffered from his own manifest lack of interest in economic issues. He was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee for four years, but you’d never know it. He repeatedly misstates his only real tax proposal for the middle class, an increase in the dependent exemption. Often, he calls it a credit. In the first debate, he called it a dividend. He might as well lurch into Tina Fey territory and call it that “hoozie-what’s-it.” Most voters probably didn’t even know that McCain had a (creative) health-care plan until Obama began lambasting it.

McCain needs more focus on the economy rather than less. He has to brand Obama as a job-killer, whose promised tax increases, plans for $1 trillion in new spending and protectionism make him unfit to forge the nation’s economic recovery. Obama himself has implicitly acknowledged the harmfulness of his capital-gains tax increases by saying he might not impose them if the economy’s still sputtering. McCain has to make the case that Obama’s most dangerous association is with a Democratic Congress that will take Obama’s proposals for tax and spending increases and make them much worse.

But here’s the interesting thing about Lowry’s advice: he does not offer a new economic idea. His main suggestion is to attack Obama’s economic ideas.

As Robert Borosage lays out today, the challenges facing the global economy are numerous and daunting. As I noted during the Republican National Convention, conservatives have yet to take any responsibility for their failed economic policies, let alone offer fresh policies that speak to today’s crises.

Americans are in severe distress, feeling our economic foundation crumble under our feet. Progressives are meeting this challenge, engaging the debate we need with ideas to revamp our global trade rules, establish new regulations for our modern financial markets, reduce business costs by guaranteeing affordable health care, strengthening unions, generating clean energy, and investing in infrastructure from bridges to broadband.

If conservatives don’t want to be buried by the failures of the past eight years, they will need to come clean with how their ideas failed America and offer new ideas that don’t repeat their same mistakes. Simply blaming McCain as a bad economic standard-bearer won’t absolve the conservative movement from responsibility.

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