John McCain will be a formidable general election candidate, I know, but I still think economic policy is going to bedevil him politically.
In his remarks to supporters tonight, he devoted all of three paragraphs to economic issues. That's not a huge amount of attention for what is, according to most polls I've seen, the voters' top concern. But put that aside and look at the way he talked about it:*
I will leave it to my opponent to argue that we should abrogate trade treaties, and pretend the global economy will go away and Americans can secure our future by trading and investing only among ourselves. We will campaign in favor of seizing the opportunities presented by the growth of free markets throughout the world, helping displaced workers acquire new and lasting employment and educating our children to prepare them for the new economic realities by giving parents choices about their children's education they do not have now.
I will leave it to my opponent to claim that they can keep companies and jobs from going overseas by making it harder for them to do business here at home. We will campaign to strengthen job growth in America by helping businesses become more competitive with lower taxes and less regulation.
I will leave it to my opponent to propose returning to the failed, big government mandates of the sixties and seventies to address problems such as the lack of health care insurance for some Americans. I will campaign to make health care more accessible to more Americans with reforms that will bring down costs in the health care industry down without ruining the quality of the world's best medical care.
In case you didn't notice, he frames each paragraph primarily as a response to -- and criticism of -- what he expects the Democrats to propose. He's against cancelling or altering trade agreements; he's against regulation; he's against universal health care. It's only afterward that he mentions what he's actually in favor of doing. And, in each case, it isn't a whole lot: Job retraining and school choice; lower taxes and regualtions on business; slowing the growth of health care costs.
This is all perfeclty logical and predictable. McCain, after all, is a true conservative on economic issues -- and conservatives, by and large, disdain government interventions in the economy. But, politically speaking, I suspect voters worried about their financial security want government to do something about it.
I know that this argument, rather conveniently, fits my own worldview. (I, too, want government to do something about economic insecurity.) But I think the polling bears this out. Tonight's results certainly suggest voters are growing skeptical of free trade. And we've known for a while that voters favor universal health coverage, at least as a campaign slogan. If McCain is going to stake his campaign on opposing these and other Democratic positions, I would think he has to suggest a little more in the way of alternatives.
*These quotes come from the prepared text. I didn't check it against his actual delivery.