Thursday, October 16, 2008

The merciful end to the presidential debate season

The debates are over and Obama went 3 for 3. Last night wasn't pretty, but at least it was more lively than the previous two. That's largely because McCain came out foaming at the mouth and went on the attack. Obviously his handlers decided that he needed to paint Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal who wants to take your hard earned dollars and redistribute it to the lazy poor. In other words, back to the future time. That might have worked a few months ago, but I think it's too little too late now. And every single snap poll after the debate showed Obama winning decisively. This thing is a done deal.

That being said, I think that McCain kinda shot himself in his own foot a couple times. Not only did he come across as nasty, angry, and utterly partisan, but he also proposed a number of incredibly stupid things. The icing on the cake, however, was the spending freeze. I'm only going to talk about this because it is utterly ridiculous and shows a contemptous disinterest in history, economic policy, and ultimately, politics.

(Note: To read more about spending in recessions, see this excellent post by Robert Reich.)

Politics: I don't know why McCain thinks a spending freeze would be popular. When Clinton was under fire in the 90s, every State of the Union Address was a laundry list of things he wanted to do, i.e., he wanted to spend money. And Clinton was hugely popular. So on its face, I don't undedrstand this argument.

But more than that, it hamstrings McCain on other issues that he thinks are vital. When McCain said he wanted to "solve autism", Obama hit back with, that will cost money and you're already committed to a spending freeze. Ooops. Frankly, Obama was being polite. He could have said that line a dozen times on pretty much every issue.

Economics: I'm no economist but I'm probably more qualified to "fix" the nation's economic trouble than McCain is. That's because I know what I don't know, I'm open to suggestions in a non-partisan way, and I think we have to look back to see what's worked in the past as a suggestion to what would work now. In that sense, I think I'm quite similar to Obama. So when McCain said "spending freeze" not only did I cringe but I was hoping that Obama would take the Frankenstonian Senator from Arizona to task. Sadly, he did not.

Here's what I've learned over the last couple days by simply reading the internets. First, you can't compare todays deficit to the deficit of 1992. In 92, when Clinton took office, the deficit was about 5% of GDP - in other words, a huge effing problem. But, Clinton sorted it out and GDP contined to rise. Now, even with a higher deficit in absolute dollars, it represents about 3.3% of GDP. This deficit problem we have is not as significant as 92 and that certainly suggests that a spending freeze is not urgent.

Moreover, the US economy is headed into recession (or depression) not out of one. That's another critical difference between 92 and 08. When you come out of recession, you need to control for inflation and deficits are a huge issue. But when you go into recession, governments need to spend money. And I'm really shocked that Obama didn't make this argument. I was expecting him to say that the US government spent its way out of the Great Depression on public works and infrastructure projects and use that as an attack on McCain's spending freeze argument and as a segway to his green jobs and infrastructure proposals. I'm guessing that given McCain's tax-and-spend strategy, Obama didn't want to give any credence to the portrait and held back.

I was going to vote for Obama anyway. Nothing could change that now. But I have to say that McCain's spending freeze argument was, for me, the worst possible thing he could have said. It appeals to the rigid nature of Bushian politics - create an ideology and stand by it no matter what. And I don't think that's what we need now (or probably ever). I expect that this subtle undercurrent, that of Obama appearing thoughtful and open to ideas with McCain coming across as stubborn, beligerent, and hostile to change is one of the reasons why McCain is going down in flames come November.



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