He Said What?!

The substance beneath the scenes

Such is the curse of the self-fulfilling prophecy: if you expect the debates to be mere political farce, complete with fumbled handshakes and awkward thumb points, all you’ll see on fight night is the stuff of snark.

And yet, in the last two presidential debates, Republican candidate John McCain has made at least three substantial, eyebrow-raising, under-examined proposals. We need close, detailed analysis of these policies, and we need it fast.

The Proposal: The League of Democracies

We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to. We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact – a League of Democracies – that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.

Since spring, McCain has been delivering some version of this line, and it has been discussed here and there on various editorial pages. David Brooks called it “the best idea floating around” on foreign policy.

The Assignment

How about a few thousand words reflecting on McCain’s history vis-a-vis the United Nations (you know, the existing ‘league of democracies-and-other-governmental-ideologies’) and consulting with senior diplomats, ambassadors and other foreign leaders, especially of countries whose relationships with America need fixing. Let’s get all these folks talking about the feasibility (and potential efficacy) of a new international body, and the effect of its formation on the UN for that matter.

The Proposal: The Spending Freeze

As president, I will impose a one-year spending freeze on every agency of the federal government, excepting only national defense, the care of our veterans, and a few critical priorities. Leadership requires candor. And I will tell you bluntly that America is already ten trillion dollars in debt, and to make our economy strong again we must reduce the burden of federal spending. We cannot tax our way to prosperity. I am committed to billions in spending reductions that will balance the budget, and get us on the path away from ruinous debt.

Again, this point was greeted with a sprinkling of discussion on various blogs. Marc Ambinder gets to the root of the root: “A spending freeze to cover ‘all but the most vital functions’ raises the basic question: what will the Democratic Congress consider vital?”

The Assignment

So what are these vital programs? What will be affected or cut? During last night’s debate, McCain mentioned that workers retiring in the future will not receive the same benefits as today’s retirees. Is cutting Social Security benefits an option? And, given that some have reported that the bailout actually shouldn’t really affect the next administration’s finances, why does McCain insist on saying so? Call economists, call policy wonks, call lifelong agency bureaucrats who know this stuff inside and out. Get McCain to answer specific questions about his plans. Run, don’t walk to the phones.

The Proposal: Mortgage Buy-up/Bailout

The new mortgage would be an FHA-guaranteed fixed-rate mortgage at terms manageable for the homeowner. The direct cost of this plan would be roughly $300 billion, because the purchase of mortgages would relieve homeowners of “negative equity” in some homes.

This is McCain’s newest proposal, even though, as The New York Times pointed out today, it’s not really so new: “The mortgage renewal idea actually originated with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain. And Mrs. Clinton, who proposed the idea in a recent newspaper column, borrowed it from a Depression-era New Deal agency, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation.”

The Assignment

There is some confusion over this story which needs clearing up. It’s possible that Congress can spend some of the $700 billion on this mortgage plan, or it’s possible that this plan would supplement the bailout and therefore contrast with the spending freeze, as Rolling Stone helpfully notes.

For all his bluster, McCain is actually taking the time to offer specific policy proposals to the public. The media should take the time to evaluate whether these proposals are worthwhile, or whether they’re just more sound and fury.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.