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McCain Unlikely to Cash In on Economy

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/mccain-looking-up1.jpgSen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (WDCPix)

Could the economy, rather than a disgruntled conservative base, trip up Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican front-runner? With slowing job growth, cutbacks in consumer spending and a recession either looming or already well underway, economic worries are topping the list of voter concerns, surpassing the wars in Iraq and national security. To make things worse, the subprime crisis is increasingly snaring prime borrowers as well — meaning more havoc in the housing market. It’s a troubling prospect for McCain, the probable GOP nominee and, by default, standard-bearer of some of the administration’s economic policies.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

McCain’s biggest problem: Glaring weaknesses in his approach to the economy, says Jason Furman, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. Furman points out that McCain doesn’t convey the competence of former challenger Mitt Romney, with his record of success in the private sector. And he’s seen as unable to display the empathy of Bill Clinton, who turned his feel for the problems of the struggling middle class into a asset during his presidential runs. “McCain is not perceived as someone who is an expert on the economy,” Furman said, “or as someone who particularly cares all that much about it.”

Beyond that, McCain is saddled with the “burden of history” dilemma — traditionally, during a recession, voters tend to throw out the party in power. Though not the incumbent, McCain has now sided with President George W. Bush in a high-profile way by supporting making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, despite having voted twice against them. He has aligned himself with conservatives by pushing for a lower corporate tax rate, along with other tax breaks for businesses. He also voted for the recent $170 billion stimulus plan supported by the Bush administration, after missing a vote on a competing Senate version that eventually failed.

But McCain also has been critical of the current budget deficit, vowing to go further than the administration in cutting both spending and earmarks.

Some who have looked closely at McCain’s record say it’s hard to pin down what he really believes on the economy. Writing in this week’s New Republic, Jonathan Chait points out that McCain’s economic record from just a few years ago hardly resembles his current outlook:

Conservatives complain constantly of McCain’s disloyalty, but the full extent of that disloyalty is not widely known. Even though it is in the public record, McCain’s voting behavior during Bush’s first term is almost never mentioned in the press anymore. Yet McCain’s secret history is simply astonishing. It is no exaggeration to say that, during this crucial period, McCain was the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington.

In health care, McCain co-sponsored, with Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Sen Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a patients’ bill of rights. He joined Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in sponsoring one bill allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs and another permitting wider sale of generic alternatives. All these measures were fiercely contested by the health care industry and, consequently, by Bush and the GOP leadership.

On the environment, he sponsored with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) a bill raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards and another bill with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) imposing a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions. He was also one of six Republicans to vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

McCain teamed with Sen. Carl Levin on bills closing down tax shelters, forbidding accounting firms from selling products to the firms they audited, and requiring businesses that gave out stock options as compensation to reveal the cost to their stockholders. These measures were bitterly opposed by big business and faced opposition not only from virtually the whole of the GOP but even from many Democrats as well.

McCain voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. He co-sponsored bills to close the gun-show loophole, expand AmeriCorps and federalize airport security. All these things set him against virtually the entire Republican Party.

But as he prepared for his 2008 presidential run, McCain began to change his tune, Chait says. Beginning in 2005, he stopped blocking repeal of the Estate Tax, and he began working to reassure conservatives he’d be reliable on taxes and spending. He started praising President Bush, instead of distancing himself. He quit teaming up with Democrats on legislation that annoyed Republicans and K Street lobbyists.

All the while, and somewhat improbably, he kept intact his reputation as a straight talker. When he lost the Michigan primary to Romney, he still drew admiration for not pandering to the auto industry and for advocating worker retraining programs and raising fuel economy standards.

Atlantic.com blogger Matthew Yglesias contends that McCain would fair poorly in a campaign dominated by the economy — pointing out here that he’s not strong on understanding economics and that that he’s flip-flopped on broad economic themes, like economic inequality.

Yet, so far, the economy hasn’t proven to be much of an obstacle for McCain.

“The funny thing is that during the period of time when he was running against Romney and Romney kept making statements that McCain didn’t understand economics, McCain still did well among voters who said they cared most about the economy,” said Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton University.

And McCain may do well among them against a Democratic challenger –even if he takes fire again over the economy. He differs from both Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) most starkly over their ambitious health care proposals. But voters who don’t want the government tinkering with such a large portion of the economy might then be drawn to McCain, who supports a smaller-scale effort aimed at controlling health care costs, McCarty said. He also appeals to swing voters who support government spending restraints and identify McCain with that issue.

Besides, in a recession, there’s not really much the government can do, and many voters recognize that, McCarty said. This means that worsening economic conditions won’t necessarily work against McCain. “I don’t think either Obama or Clinton will come out with an economic plan targeted toward the recession,” McCarty said. “That’s going to minimize it as an issue.”

To someone like Wayne Thorburn, a McCain supporter, the economy actually is a non-issue — at least for now. Thorburn, 63, an Austin, Tex. consultant who initially supported former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, said the economy may present a different picture eight months down the road. And parts of the country like Austin aren’t experiencing the downturn with the same severity as other places, meaning not all voters will give economic concerns the same priority. In the end, he thinks McCain’s advantage on national security will overcome any doubts about his economic positions.

“It’s really hard to predict how big an issue the economy will be,” Thorburn said. “And we really don’t know what the impact of the stimulus bill will be on the average voter.”

The other unknown is whether voters eventually will decide that concerns about Iraq trump economic worries, even in recessionary times, Furman, of Brookings, said. Health care aside, most of the economic differences between McCain and the Democratic challengers are the usual ideological arguments that separate the parties. But on Iraq, there’s a clear choice. “There’s always the possibility that Iraq will loom larger in people’s minds by November,” Furman said.

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