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What's So Republican About These Economics

"Reform" night didn't really mention any McCain reforms, but it did celebrate economic incoherence

Matt Welch
September 4, 2008

In all the hubbub of last night's Sarah Palin coming-out party, the theme of the night–reform–got lost. That was probably just as well for John McCain, since he's relying so heavily on the Great Man theory of politics, which values above all virtue over messy specifics.

But it was also convenient to laud McCain's "real reform" record without actually mentioning any of McCain's real reforms, because Republicans tend to hate what few real reforms McCain has made.

Take the speech-regulating, First Amendment-busting McCain-Feingold Act, a law so deservedly reviled in the Xcel Center that the only speaker all week to even utter the phrase "campaign finance" was a Democrat, Joe Lieberman. Or the procedural "Gang of 14" compromise to speed the way Washington confirms judges, an act of reform that once served as a deal-breaker for back-in-the-tank Republicans like Hugh Hewitt.

And McCain's failed proposals have fared little better with Republicans. The McCain-Lieberman bill for a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions, which is something that would have a decent chance at becoming law with a Democratic Congress? Not so popular among the free-market base. And McCain's enthusiasm for comprehensive immigration reform nearly strangled his candidacy in the crib.

So in lieu of practical examples of McCain reforms last night, the Republicans waxed at length about economic policy issues, an area where you'd think they'd do pretty well for those of us with preferences for limited government and free-market economics.

Well, think again. In campaign-vetted speech after campaign-vetted speech, Republicans (and a sprinkling of Democrats) sketched out a vision of economics that could charitably described as incoherent.

Carolyn Dunn, a "farm partner and community volunteer," stood up for two policies I haven't seen promoted since covering Ralph Nader: "Food security" and government-sponsored repopulation of the American midwest. "I care deeply about the food supply in this country. I do not want us to rely on unsafe shipments from overseas, where little oversight and none of the same standards apply," she said. "John McCain will work to restore rural prosperity by investing in renewable energy and high-tech connectivity, and will prioritize policies that will revitalize rural America.... Let's stop perpetuating the idea that to be successful you need to move to the big city."

Dunn wasn't the only one invoking the image of scary foreigners. Even Mitt Romney, the guy who was supposed to be the economic brains in the Republican primary field, exhibited one of the worst interpretations of the Invisible Hand I have ever seen, asserting that "China is acting like Adam Smith on steroids."

Luis Fortuno, resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, gave an energy-security speech that would have been right at home at the Democratic National Convention, if only it had contained the saw about "five million green jobs." "Under President McCain's leadership," Fortuno said, "we will become a leader in the new global green economy; by protecting our environment and addressing climate change; by promoting energy efficiency; and, finally, by cracking down on the speculative pricing of oil." Nassty Speculatorsses!

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina piled on, hinting at McCain's long record of meddling into the affairs of Wall Street: "John McCain believes that all institutions of power and wealth—whether they are government agencies or global corporations—must be both transparent and accountable to those they serve."

Renee Amoore, a "nurse, entrepreneur, and small business owner," posited that if you want anything to be better, whether it's the federal government's responsibility or not, McCain's your man. "If you want to fight childhood obesity through physical education and nutritional meals in schools, then you are a McCain voter," she said. "If you are sick and tired of all the DC yak-yak-yak, and realize that every day action is delayed, problems just get worse...If you want action, McCain's your man."

On this last point, Amoore is actually correct. If you think every problem should have a "fix me, president!" sign taped on it, then John McCain is indeed your man, since he is much more of an issue-by-issue problem-solver than someone who springs from a fixed philosophy about the proper role of limited government.

These were not the dominant sentiments on Reform Day. Far from it. There was plenty to cheer about as well, in rhetoric advocating lower taxes, smaller government, freer trade, and a much more active veto pen (the latter of which may be the single most attractive prospect of a McCain presidency). But as the last eight years of largely Republican governance taught us, talking about smaller government is no substitute for actually reducing its size.

The phrase "the devil is in the details" was tailor-made for the United States Senate. John McCain may have some noble reform impulses—wanting to overhaul and humanize the country's Byzantine immigration policy would be one example—but by the end of the sausage-making process the reforms bearing his name often end up limiting freedom more than unleashing it.

More worryingly is that the man who famously said "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues" (and in fact said it twice, to opposing audiences, as a way of justifying two opposing positions on tax cuts), has an active career as a regulator, and few demonstrated strong principles on economic policy aside from a heartening fondness for free trade and bracing opposition to government waste. Last night's economic incoherence was a feature, not a bug, and if McCain presides over a Democratic Congress, there is no real telling what a Man of Action will do.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Matt Welch is Editor in Chief, Reason


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