About That Mortgage Proposal

It’s not just about the rhetoric wars

In the days following the second presidential debate, the McCain campaign has pressed the “Who is Barack Obama?” field of inquiry, in the form of character attacks on the Democratic candidate’s trustworthiness and judgment. The media have largely interpreted this to be something of a last-ditch, negative attempt to affect the outcome of an election that seems to be slipping away—but they’ve also given much energy to its coverage.

Remember, though, that McCain did present a new piece of information during Tuesday’s debate: his $300 billion plan for homeowners—a proposal that a Politico article stated, “amounts to a homeowner buyout”. And while conservative pundits didn’t like it and Karl Rove thought it “both impulsive and badly explained,” the plan deserves fair airing in any reports of the candidates on the trail. (George Will wrote, “It may be politically prudent for McCain to throw caution, and billions, to the wind,” a statement that is in and of itself worth unpacking.)

But while there have been articles assessing the plan independently (for example, this take-out in the NYT and these bullet-point details from Politico), there’s been less mention of it in reports from the swing states where the candidates are currently selling their wares.

A Los Angeles Times article yesterday entitled “McCain campaign ratchets up the rhetoric” focused solely on words and moods during two McCain rallies. In Pennsylvania: “John McCain and Sarah Palin delivered a stark condemnation of Barack Obama’s policies and character Wednesday, casting him as an unreliable choice for president.”

And: “McCain dismissed Obama as an unworthy rival with dubious ethics.”

And later in Ohio: “…the mood turned angry when McCain and Palin spooled out the arguments against Obama they had made earlier in the day in Pennsylvania.”

And again: “With the race winding down and McCain trailing in the polls, the Republican ticket has gotten more personal in its attacks.”

The article also quoted Sarah Palin discussing the Bill Ayers connection as a reason to question Obama’s judgment, mentioned the angry crowd comments directed at Obama—shouts like “Liar!” or “Abomination!”—that surfaced in many campaign reports yesterday, and noted that “local Republican official William Platt warmed up the audience by twice referring to the Democratic nominee as ‘Barack Hussein Obama.’”

Similarly, a story in the Chicago Tribune mentioned that the McCain campaign was “distracted” when “for the second time in three days someone invoked Obama’s middle name” during a Republican rally, and that “shouts of “socialist,” “terrorist” and “liar” from supporters followed McCain’s references to Obama at Lehigh University” in Pennsylvania.

These reports focused exclusively on the rhetorical attacks on Obama made by the McCain campaign, and on the apparent increase in verbal vitriol at Republican rallies. Words, in these campaign snapshots, take precedence over everything else.

Mortgage proposal? Haven’t heard of it.

While the increasingly dirty language evident at these rallies should certainly be covered in stride, and while Bill Ayers deserves independent inquiry, any report from the trail should remember that McCain did present a new idea that is supposed to help troubled homeowners, and assess his speeches with that in mind. If he’s talking about the plan in between the “Who is Senator Obama?” lines, it deserves mention. If he’s not, that deserves mention as well.

Here’s a good point from Politico: “McCain’s plan reflects the continued demand that both candidates do more to address the economic crisis. It also offers McCain, who has been criticized for having little in the way of an economic plan, a substantive idea to hold up in the remaining days of the race on an issue that has done considerable damage to his campaign.”

In other words, it’s a way to assess McCain on substance. Whether or not the mortgage plan is an ill-advised idea, it tells us something about how McCain might govern. Not mentioning it as the candidates travel through swing states—and sticking to the rhetoric wars—tells us little new about McCain. It’s incomplete to make the story all about McCain’s campaign tactics, which, while perhaps valid indicators of his character and temperament, aren’t necessarily indicators of the sort of president he would make. And at this stage in the campaign, voters need all the substantive information they can get.

A New York Times piece by Elisabeth Bumiller put the two pieces in context:

…those attacks pump up crowds on the campaign trail, where it is the sharp criticism of Mr. Obama, rather than Mr. McCain’s once-over comments on the economy, that draw the biggest, loudest response…

While this arguably sets up the two pieces of the puzzle—McCain’s criticisms of Obama and the mortgage proposal—as an either-or proposition that may not be entirely fair, it does inject a better perspective on the issues currently at stake. This Washington Post article also tackles the mortgage proposal head on.

But after yesterday’s rhetoric-heavy article, the LAT leads its political news with another warring rhetoric story. The NYT Web site, for its part, matches two stories about McCain and Palin pushing the Ayers line of attack, with a story about Obama responding to McCain’s mortgage proposal. It’s a reminder that even if candidates don’t follow through on their own propositions, it shouldn’t limit reporters from reminding their readers what is missing from the speeches.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.