Early Debate Returns: Bad for McCain

I watched the debate tonight with growing frustration at John McCain's failure to attack Obama squarely on his confiscatory economic policies. I've finally come to the conclusion that John McCain is unable (or unwilling) to promote the kind of conservative economic message that I think much of this country is wanting to hear.  Instead, he's splitting hairs with Barack Obama on the economy -- and losing in the process. I'm always interested in the views of Steven Hayes at the Weekly Standard -- he's a smart, reasonable writer who I read frequently.  His review of the debate is that Obama won. Here's part of what he had to say:

"John McCain had a very strong debate tonight. It’s too bad for him that it came on a night when Barack Obama was nearly flawless.

The debate began with questions on the economy and for thirty minutes Obama answered those questions with the kind of substance that I suspect anxious voters wanted to hear and with exactly the right tone – empathic, aggravated and determined. Most important, he spoke to voters in their own language. In his first answer, in response to a question about things the government can do to help average Americans through these tough economic times, Obama spoke of a $400,000 junket that AIG executives took after the government bailed them out. “Treasury should get that money back,” he said, “and those executives should be fired.” Sure, a little demagoguery. But it’s exactly the kind of story – in a debate that included back-and-forth accusations and lots of statistics – that voters will remember and talk about tomorrow with their neighbors.

McCain took that first question and he turned immediately to energy. “Americans are angry, they’re upset and they’re a little fearful. And it’s our job to fix the problem. Now, I have a plan to fix this problem and it’s got to do with energy independence.  It didn’t work. Two months ago, when gas prices were nearing $5 and the cost of oil dominated the headlines, the McCain campaign deftly used anxieties about energy as a proxy for anxieties about the economy. So when McCain proposed to lift the ban on offshore drilling, voters responded positively and the polling reflected their enthusiasm."

This is what I was afraid of: McCain being unable to clearly articulate why Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress is a danger to our economy. The reflexive return of McCain and Palin to the energy issue is a comfort zone and understandable -- but not good enough in this economy. McCain seems unable to explain to the American people that Obama's tax policies and his liberal record will be a poison pill to an economy that needs liquidity. It needs low taxes to fuel growth -- something that simply isn't possible with Obama's tax-and-spend plan.

Even worse, McCain's populist instincts are taking him down the wrong path. Rather than returning to a free-market solution to what should be a free market problem, his instinct is to increase regulation and government control -- exactly what Obama and the Democrats want to do. He again misses a chance at differentiation. Here's Hayes again:

"But while energy issues remain important and cannot be separated from the broader economic picture, the convulsions in world markets over the past two weeks and the need for a $700 billion federal bailout have rendered worries about gas prices and energy independence to second-tier status. It’s not that these issues don’t matter, it’s just that they matter less now than they did over the summer. He later broadened his answer to include spending, tax cuts and his jaw-dropping plan to have the federal government buy up “the bad home loan mortgages in America” to “let people make those payments and stay in their homes.” So bigger government is bad, quasi-governmental entities Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “ignited” the current economic crisis, too much government spending is leaving us broke and we want the U.S. Treasury to renegotiate individual home mortgages? Seriously? No thanks."

No thanks is right. The correct and powerful answer here is to reignite the economy through lower taxes to stimulate jobs and growth so people can pay their mortgages -- NOT to have the government take over that role. This mess in the housing market is partly an issue of personal behavior -- not simply predatory lending. I, for one, am not interested in my tax dollars going to bail out people who made bad decisions. I think many Americans would agree with that. Unfortunately, McCain's instincts don't lead him down that path. He's still in the "Wall Street greed" mode.

I hate to throw in the towel here, but...it is now clear that the issues that many conservatives have with McCain are legitimate and real. That despite his great personal story, his maverick personality often betrays a message that would greatly appeal to a great swath of America. He's actually give people less of a choice by co-opting the position of Obama on so many issues.

My guess is that the polls are not going to be good for McCain after this performance tonight. In a debate where he really needed to help himself, I'm afraid he's come up short.

We'll see.