It was entirely predictable that John McCain would use Barack Obama's comments about small town America to rebrand Obama as a liberal elitist.
But who knew McCain would also use the opportunity to rebrand himself as a modern-day Bobby Kennedy?
During some remarks this morning, McCain announced that he will spend next week touring communities coping with job losses and hard economic times. His goal, according to the prepared text sent to media, is "to tell people living there that there must not be any forgotten parts of America; any forgotten Americans. Hope in America is not based in delusion, but in the faith that everything is possible in America. The time for pandering and false promises is over. It is time for action."
Of course, the Democratic presidential candidates--not least among them, Obama--have been doing that for quite a while now. They've been talking about the financial struggles even middle-class Americans face, from stagnant wages to rising gas prices, ever since the campaign began. And they've been putting forward serious policy ideas to help address these problems, from college tuition assistance to public investment to universal health insurance.
Not McCain. Economic issues have never been a focus of his campaign. He's been slow to flesh out his ideas--until a week ago, he seemed disinclined to do anything at all about the housing crisis. And even to the extent he does want to act, he's convinced that government can only make matters worse: "It is time for change, but the right kind of change; change that trusts in the strength of free people and free markets; change that doesn't return to policies that empower government to make our choices for us, but that works to ensure that we have choices to make for ourselves."
It's not surprising to hear McCain talk this way. He is, after all, a conservative. And that's the way conservatives see the world.
But it's worth keeping in mind exactly what that all means. Trusting the free market in health care means allowing insurers to exclude people with pre-existing conditions--and letting insurers game the system so that people with serious illness end up facing serious financial hardship. Trusting the free market in the housing market means offering only very modest financial assistance to borrowers struggling with their mortgages.
Interestingly, McCain began his announcement with a reference to the Great Depression. In a direct rejoinder to Obama's remarks, which stressed the bitterness many Americans feel, McCain reminded people of the widespread confidence that characterized the Depression Era:During the Great Depression, with many millions of Americans out of work and the country suffering the worst economic crisis in our history, there rose from small towns, rural communities, inner cities, a generation of Americans who fought to save the world from despotism and mass murder, and came home to build the wealthiest, strongest and most generous natdion on earth. They were not born with the advantages others in our country enjoyed. They suffered the worst during the Depression. But it had not shaken their faith in and fidelity to America and its founding political ideals. Nor had it destroyed their confidence that America and their own lives could be made better.
This isn't quite the image of Depression-era sentiment one gets from, say, reading Grapes of Wrath.
But never mind that. Histories of the Great Depression generally include some mention of a new president named Franklin Roosevelt and a reform agenda he pursued called the "New Deal." It involved--among other things--regulating the banking system, financing public works, and creating a universal pension program for the elderly. These programs all involved expanding the role of government and interfering with the free market, radically in some cases. And some of these initiatives, surely, worked better than others. But, overall, that's what it took not only to alleviate suffering but also to rescue capitalism--in no small part, by restoring faith in the system.
If McCain wants to cling to his curiously selective version of history, that's his prerogative. And if McCain wants to tell Americans facing financial hardship that there's really nothing he can do from Washington--that, if they just bear down and show faith, they can make it--he's welcome to do so.
But it does make you wonder--which one of these guys is really out of touch?--Jonathan Cohn