Debate: McCain Fails to Hit Economic Softball

Two weeks ago, John McCain’s campaign went on hiatus, claiming that Senator McCain’s place was back in Washington, D.C. to address the nation’s credit crisis. With little explanation as to what exactly Senator McCain hoped to accomplish, he retreated to Northern Virginia at the height of a presidential campaign.There were wide differences of opinion as to whether this was a strategically sound campaign decision. Many thought the idea foolish, particularly when this ‘suspension’ of campaign activity arguably might interfere with the first presidential debate. Other supporters, including this author, were willing to accept the campaign’s decision, but did so conditionally. Leaving the campaign to return to Washington only made sense if there was some tangible ‘value-added’ that Senator McCain might bring to the legislative resolution. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

Instead of developing specific proposals to address the economic malaise or, at least, demonstrating a mastery of the problem, we saw and heard little of Senator McCain and no reasonable analysis could conclude that his assistance forged any particular aspect of the ultimate bail-out package. It has been argued that he provided some cover for Representative Boehner’s stronger line at the largely unproductive White House meeting of the president and congressional leadership. But, in the absence of specifics as to what that cover meant in terms of enhancing the package, from a campaign perspective, his contributions are rendered largely irrelevant.

Perhaps, because of this perception regarding his lack of specific leadership in the prior week’s bailout package, Senator McCain introduced his $300 billion *American Homeownership Resurgence Package *at Tuesday night’s debate. While commendable as an effort to place a specific proposal on the table for voters to consider, Senator McCain is not the best salesperson for his proposal. Unfortunately, his presentation lacked specificity and appropriate fanfare, largely because it was cast in the middle of a debate setting. Without commenting on the merits of the proposal, in rolling it out this way, the magnitude of the policy implications it raised were difficult to grasp. Were it not for debate pundits, like Fortune Magazine’s Nina Easton, the proposal would have been lost on the watching public.

This is the type of proposal that should have been outlined by Senator McCain in a planned press conference — allowing him the time and space to explain it in detail and why establishing a floor for real estate valuation is critically important as a starting point for American economic recovery. This approach would have been far more effective from a campaign perspective.

But, the biggest disappointment from Tuesday night was Senator McCain’s failure to hit the softball which Tom Brokaw threw both candidates to name their Secretary of Treasury. Now, Senator McCain shouldn’t have necessarily taken the bait to name a particular individual, unless he knew who that person would be. What he should have done, however, is to identify a public point person on economic policy (different from his behind-the-scene advisors) that will serve him during the remainder of the campaign, in the transition and will assist him in the creation of his economic team, including his Secretary of Treasury — all with the announced intent to hit the ground running on January 20, 2009. The natural person for this public position was and is Governor Mitt Romney.

This does three things – one it assures the American public that Senator McCain is receiving sound advice about whom he should to put in charge of the $700 billion bailout package that was just enacted. Second, and more important, it would empower Governor Romney to speak with the full authority of Senator McCain on *’all issues economic’ *between now and November 4. Governor Romney was and is *the economic relief valve *which John McCain needs at this moment. With this point person in place, Senator McCain isn’t put in the position of having to address economic issues every day, if he knows that Governor Romney can and will ably handle those issues with the candidate’s imprimatur. Finally, it would be a way to further shore the Republican base, who would react to a public role for Governor Romney much in the same way as they reacted to the Palin announcement.

In failing to seize this opportunity to introduce the public head of his economic team, while choosing to introduce a very complex proposal and depending on opinion pundits to explain it to the American voter, Senator McCain did himself a great disservice Tuesday night. Hopefully, Senator McCain will get another at-bat.