Checks We Can't Cash

McCain put on a good show in Wednesday's debate. But try as he might, it seems George Bush, not Barack Obama, is the Republican candidate’s main rival.

John McCain has adopted various personas during his presidential campaign. First he was George W. Bush redux, championing the surge and taking over Bush's adviser for his campaign team. Then he morphed back into the maverick, pleading with Americans, during his convention speech, to "fight with me" to recapture Washington from the malevolent forces that are corrupting the nation's capital. Now, in the third and final debate, another McCain emerged: grumpy old man.

"I'm not George Bush," he exclaimed to Obama, clearly nettled by the constant equations of himself with the Decider. No, he isn't. Bush inherited a huge budget surplus from Bill Clinton and had the luxury of going up against a snooty Al Gore in 2000. This was different. It was a generational battle. It was the old codger versus the whippersnapper last night, and McCain's seething contempt for Obama came through clearly. McCain was the unhappy warrior. This was probably the authentic McCain, and a good thing too. Even if the election is lost-and at this point it would take a miracle for McCain to realize his dream of becoming commander in chief-the debate at least wasn't a snooze fest.

What's more, McCain scored some telling points. Obama's troubles with the working class continued, at least in the form of the newly famous Ohio plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher, who asked the pertinent question of why Obama wants to raise taxes on anyone earning more than two hundred fifty thousand dollars Obama was stumped then, and he was stumped last night. The fact is that Obama wants to redistribute the tax burden, but it's not clear how he can accomplish it without further damaging the economy. Raising taxes on the most productive forces in the economy is not going to boost it. With the stock market falling out, the government will be taking in far less money in this and coming years. How is Obama going to pay for the passel of government programs he wants to institute? Fact is, the Left is intoxicated by the idea of making the great society even greater by embarking upon a massive jobs and infrastructure program, not seen since the heady days of the New Deal. The Left resembles the Republican Congress in its avidity for spending and Dick Cheney in its conviction that deficits don't matter.

But McCain himself doesn't have much credibility in the domestic arena either. He's been busily demonizing bankers and "greed" for the imploding economy, apparently operating under the assumption that the business cycle was supposed to have been repealed somewhere along the way. Last night he reiterated his call for buying out the mortgages of homeowners who are on the cusp of being evicted. Who's going to pay for everything that McCain wants? He, like Obama, doesn't have a clue. The fact is that the United States may end up running deficits in the next four years that make George W. Bush and the Republican Congress look penurious. How that will affect inflation and interest rates is another matter. The legacy of the Iraq War and the Bush meltdown may be to send the United States into a prolonged slump, similar to the one that it endured during the 1970s, during the hangover from the Vietnam War.

The strangest part of the debate isn't what was said but what wasn't. This was another bout of American solipsism, even if the illusion of American omnipotence has been dispelled, at least temporarily. How often was the term "global economy" used last night? Obama and McCain behaved as if America can act in an economic vacuum. But the recovery will have to be a global one. Here in England, where I'm currently visiting, unemployment is soaring. Germany is looking at a recession. How do either Obama or McCain plan to work with other world leaders to remedy the world economy?

Nor did the candidates touch upon the question of American global power and economics. The British Empire went under after World War II because of a faltering balance of payments. America is different. It can recover. But neither Obama nor McCain grappled with the effect of falling oil revenues on Iran, the former Soviet Union and Venezuela. There are two possibilities. The first is that America will actually emerge stronger from the current turmoil, as its competitors are weakened. The second is that it will have to begin choosing among its foreign-policy commitments abroad, as it can no longer afford a lavish foreign policy. The neoconservative advisers around McCain have little, if any, understanding of international economics, regarding it as a trifling concern next to the he-man world of bombs and more bombs. That attitude helped bring about the Iraq War that Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz predicts will cost around $3 trillion, when everything is added up. No doubt Obama has harped on the cost of the Iraq War. But there was no discussion of cutting the Pentagon's budget last night. Instead, both candidates operated in an alternate reality, where the United States can spend as much as it chooses without paying any real consequences.

Still, the debate clearly demonstrated the differences between the two candidates. McCain, impulsive and belligerent, was back in fighter-pilot mode, firing off as many missiles as he could, giving a good indication of where he would take the United States as president-on a wild, stomach-churning ride as he revels in the turbulence, zooming from one policy to the next. Obama, by contrast, retained his cool, patiently enduring the tirades unleashed by McCain, who was either smirking or rolling his eyes.