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Don't Believe The Hype: Mccain Is Still A Bush Republican

How did it play politically? Will it energize the base? Will it make swing voters swoon?

As usual, your guess is as good as mine--or any of the pundits you see yapping on the television right now. Until the focus groups and polls come in, we're all just speculating.

But I can register a verdict on substance. If this was McCain's answer to voter anxiety about the economy, it wasn't too impressive.

As you've been reading--or, perhaps, as you've noticed on your own--economic policy has not been a big theme this week in Minneapolis. The Republicans have been campaigning heavily on McCain's character and supposed leadership skills. To the extent they recognzied the high anxiety over employment, wages, or health care costs, they have spent most of their time criticizing Barack Obama's plans for relief rather than offering their own. Only when they have made the case for more oil drilling--or that old Republican standby of cutting taxes--have they talked substance. And even that's been pretty thin gruel.

At times tonight, it looked like McCain might take a different approach. He made a point of acknowledging the financial difficulties confronting many Americans:

These are tough times for many of you. You're worried about keeping your job or finding a new one, and are struggling to put food on the table and stay in your home. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side, not in your way. And that's just what I intend to do: stand on your side and fight for your future. 

He repeated the argument later, saying, "I know some of you have been left behind in the changing economy and it often seems your government hasn't even noticed." 

But what, besides "noticing" people's economic struggles, did McCain actually propose to do? Nothing terribly useful, I would argue.

McCain reiterated his interest in drilling for more oil--a strategy that, as noted in this space, wouldn't actually do much to reduce gas prices. He also vowed to cut taxes, failing to mention that most of the cuts would go to the very wealthy--and that paying for those cuts would require slashing entitlements or running up huge deficits. (And, don't forget, unmanageable deficits will ultimately hurt poor and middle-income workers, too.) 

McCain did talk about his health care plan--something, as best as I can recall, no other prime time speaker did. But his suggestion that it would "make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health care insurance" is just plain wrong. As numerous experts have noted, its primary effect will be to move people out of employer-sponsored insurance and into the individual market, where the benefits are less comprehensive and insurers refuse coverage to anybody with pre-exsiting medical conditions.

Of course, McCain's primary argument about the economy has never been about specific policies. It's been about character. And tonight's speech hit those themes over and over again. I'm a maverick. I buck my own party. I will clean up Washington.

But will he really? McCain's tax cut proposal looks an awful lot like President Bush's. So does his plan for oil drilling. So do his health insurance reforms. When it comes to economic policy, McCain is just another Bush Republican. 

And, yes, McCain has tried to curb the influence of special interests in Washington. These were good, important fights and McCain deserves real credit for waging them.

But what, ultimately, do special interests have to do with the financial anxiety of the poor and middle class? Tectonic economic forces like globalization and the increasing linkage between skills and wages are the real problem here. To the extent special interests have a role, it's because they've blocked measures that would ease labor union organizing, tilt the tax code more towards lower-income Americans, and make health insurance universally available. McCain has made it quite clear that he opposes all of these things.

In the end, tonight's speech merely confirmed what many of us knew along: McCain just doesn't have good answers to our troubled economy. I don't know whether the voters will care about this, but I do know they should.

Update: Kevin Drum notices something I didn't: McCain made a plug for wage insurance. It's a smart idea, one that McCain has mentioned before. The trouble, as I understand it, is that McCain isn't willing to put serious money behind it. And how could he, given the huge shortfalls his tax cuts would create? Still, he deserves credit for mentioning the idea. Funded properly, it would indeed help.

--Jonathan Cohn