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Is Mccain Learning To Love The Nanny State?

Last month, when John McCain decided to address the housing crisis, he adopted a decidedly cautious tone. He offered no bold initiatives, only a vow to "consider new proposals." He also dished out some tough love, not just for bankers but also for some borrowers: "I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers."

It was a striking contrast to the approach taken by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, each of whom gave lengthy speeches dwelling on the struggles of homeowners with high mortgage payments and laying out detailed plans for helping them. The result, for McCain, was a political dud that left even some of his supporters nonplussed. One of them, Florida Senator Mel Martinez, said that he would have given McCain a grade of "incomplete."

Perhaps that helps explain what happened on Thursday, when McCain returned to the housing issue during a new speech about the economy. This time, McCain did offer a plan--an initiative he's calling HOME, under which homeowners unable to keep up with payments can get new, more affordable mortgages. And while McCain reiterated the cautious principles he'd announced previously, he finished his speech on a conspicuously more ambitious note: "Let me make it clear that in these challenging times, I am committed to using all the resources of this government and great nation to create opportunity and make sure that every deserving American has a good job and can achieve their American dream."

I'm not enough of an expert on housing policy to judge the HOME plan on its merits right now, except to say that it seems--upon superficial inspection--like a very stripped-down version of (some of) what Clinton and Obama have proposed. (I'll try to do some follow-up reporting and offer more details soon.) 

The change in McCain's political posture, though, seems pretty unmistakable: The last speech was all about what McCain wouldn't do; this speech was all about what McCain would do. And you don't have to take my word for it: Here's Michael Cooper's report for the New York Times: "In both tone and substance, Mr. McCain’s remarks were something of a departure from a speech the senator delivered last month..."

By the way, this may not be the last time we see something like this from the McCain campaign. During the Republican primaries, McCain unveiled an economic policy agenda focused on restraining government spending and letting the market economy operate free of regulation. It is, I imagine, an honest expression of McCain's core beliefs about how government should work. But this agenda isn't particularly convenient, in the short-term political sense, because it doesn't offer much in the way of immediate assistance for people struggling financially.

Still, McCain hasn't really fleshed out his ideas, in part because Republican voters don't demand the kind of policy specificty that their Democratic counterparts do. So McCain may spend the next few weeks trotting out new, more detailed plans that offer--or seem to offer--the kind of direct assistance that Clinton and Obama promised long ago.

If that happens, I hope more reporters will do what Cooper did and take note of McCain's inconsistency. The issue here isn't (necessarily) honesty; it's commitment. Politicians can change their minds, after all. But somebody serious about addressing economic insecurity surely would have focused on the problem--and its solutions--long before yesterday.

--Jonathan Cohn