Campaigns are–as everyone knows–not the time for a high blown policy debate. The increasingly dishonorable McCain campaign is classic in this regard–with much of its advertising devoted to diversionary attacks on Barack Obama, many featuring the "washed up terrorist" that McCain said he wasn't interested in. His partner on the ticket–Sarah Palin–has begun calling Obama "socialist," while embracing the "pro-American" parts of the country. This isn't really ugly; it's just silly and depressing.
Neither candidate–in motion daily, giving speeches repeatedly, scrambling just to stay in touch with the news–has the opportunity to review in depth what we are facing, and to begin to develop a clear and comprehensive response to the worst economic challenge since the Great Depression.
Despite that, however, the campaigns and the candidates have displayed out a pretty clear choice of direction. And given voters a clear indication of which candidate is even open to the steps we need to take to get out of the hole we are in.
We know where McCain's passion is. He wants to cut domestic spending and, of course, eliminate earmarks. As a first step, he pledges a freeze on all domestic spending. He'd add more tax cuts–largely for corporations and the wealthy — on top of the Bush tax cuts which he would sustain. He pledges to balance the budget in four years. He wants to raise military spending. Put those together and you are talking about deep cuts in domestic spending, with Medicare and Medicaid at the top of the list. That isn't an attack; it is just addition.
Even in the wake of the financial collapse, with even McCain finally admitting that the economy is in bad shape, he calls for the domestic spending freeze and pledges to balance the budget in four years. His growth agenda is to cut taxes and cut spending. He'll keep cutting trade deals like those of the past, and cut corporate taxes to encourage them to stay here at home.
Obama is virtually the reverse. He would roll back the top end Bush tax cuts on people making over $250,000 a year. He'd end the tax breaks to corporations that move jobs abroad. He'll give a tax break to middle and low income earners, but his emphasis is to make the investments we need both to kick start the economy and strengthen it over the long term. So he calls for major investments in new energy and conservation, retrofitting buildings and putting people to work. He wants to double the loans going to the auto industry, while demanding that they make the new electric and hybrid cars here at home. Even when grilled by the debate moderators, he doesn't back down from his commitment to investment in new energy, in health care and in education.
McCain correctly calls himself a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution, which was guided by Andrew Laffer and his famous Laffer curve, that highlighted the dangers of high taxes. McCain wants smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation. So he would tax employer based health care as income–a $2000 to 3000 tax on most working families–in order to accelerate the move from employer based health care to individual plans. He'd give you a tax credit to negotiate on your own with the insurance companies. Similarly, he'd privatize Social Security (although he won't talk about that now that the stock market has cratered). He'd seek vouchers to pay for private schools.
Obama, in contrast, sees the recession through Roosevelt's eyes, and embraces the teachings of John Keynes that markets aren't perfect. In a recession, government investment is vital to get the economy going. He's for sensible regulation of the banking sector. He's for supplementing employer based health care with a secure choice–keep the plan you have or choose to join a public plan, like that enjoyed by members of Congress. He'd protect Social Security and Medicare.
Despite all the negative attacks, the diversions and the dirt, this is the basic choice Americans must make. How do we get out of the hole we are in? More top end and corporate tax cuts? Or more public investment in things we need. Do we think tax cuts, deregulation and spending cuts are vital? Or do we think it is time to rebuild America, to regulate the banks and invest in our country. Americans are conflicted. They know that Bush's policies haven't worked, yet they are wary about "tax and spend" Democrats, much less the "socialist" phantoms that Palin evokes. In fourteen days, we'll get to choose.