The Magazine

The McCain Economic "Team"

Intellectual diversity, for better and for worse.

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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You probably have your own favorite, which is fine, but for my money the most revealing moment of the presidential campaign (so far!) came during the last debate among the Republican candidates, on January 24. Ron Paul briefly alighted on our fragile planet and challenged John McCain, if elected, to abolish something called the President's Working Group on Financial Markets, which Paul seems to think rivals the Trilateral Commission and the Knights Templar for sinister nefariousness. McCain didn't answer Paul's question, but on the more general matter of how he would make economic policy, he did say this:

But I as president, as every other president, rely primarily on my secretary of the Treasury, on my Council of Economic Advisers, on the head of that. I would rely on the circle that I have developed over many years of people like Jack Kemp, Phil Gramm, Warren Rudman, Pete Peterson and the Concord group. I have a process of leadership, Ron, that is sort of an inclusive one that I have developed, a circle of acquaintances and people that are supporters and friends of mine who I have worked with for many, many years.

Notice that phrase "people like." What makes it odd is that those people aren't like each other at all, at least when it comes to their economic views. A couple of them, if you put them in the same room, would set off an intergalactic explosion like the collision of matter and antimatter.

One adviser, Jack Kemp, is the man who talked Ronald Reagan into embracing supply side economics in the 1970s, which launched the Reagan boom of the 1980s. He's the world's bubbliest advocate of tax cuts, dismissing the traditional Republican fixation on balanced budgets as "root canal" economics. Another adviser, Peter Peterson, is root canal economics. He's a dour Jeremiah who called the Reagan boom a "mad, drunken bash" and thinks steep tax increases on income, gasoline, tobacco, and alcohol, on top of a 5 percent consumption tax, are necessary to put the government's finances in order. He and Rudman run the Concord Coalition, an advocacy group that regards the federal government's budget deficit as the country's foundational economic problem.

Let's stipulate that a president should seek advice from a wide assortment of counselors. And McCain's list may very well reveal a refreshingly nonideological approach to policy making that will prove popular in our post-partisan era of change, the future, causes-greater-than-your-self-interest, hope, and so on. Then again, it might reveal something else. You can't help but wonder: Does McCain know the unbridgeable philosophical differences among the men he mentioned, or are these simply the names that occur to him when someone asks about economic policy? There's good reason to think that in economic matters, John McCain doesn't know his own mind. He's even admitted as much, in off-the-cuff statements that Democrats will be repeating from now till November.

"The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should," McCain told the Boston Globe late last year. He said that in choosing a vice president he'd look for a person with economic experience to compensate for his own shortcomings. "I'm going to be honest," he told Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal three years ago. "I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated." McCain has since tried, implausibly, to disavow all these statements, protesting that his knowledge of economics is perfectly sufficient for a president. But the zigs and zags of his 25-year career as a congressman and senator suggest that, when he said he didn't know much about economic policy, he was giving us some of that bracing straight talk.