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McCain on the Record

Exclusive interview: John McCain talks about the economy and the Bush administration's foreign policy failures.

12:00 AM, Oct 21, 2008 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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John McCain leaned far back in a tan first-class seat aboard the blue, white, and gold campaign plane with his name emblazoned on the side. His right foot--in a black loafer with a silver buckle--was resting on the armrest of the seat in front of his, and, though his body was slouched, the crease on his gray flannel pants was crisp and his starched blue and white checked shirt kept its on-the-hanger form. In the seat pocket in front of him was a folded copy of USA Today and an old Sports Illustrated magazine with an NFL cover. A two-inch rubberized Gumby straddled the seat pocket in front of him, peering back in McCain's direction, as Gumby's horse Pokey took in the scene perched next to his rider.

McCain didn't look up from his book as I took the seat next to him. And when I greeted him, I received the same spare acknowledgement of my presence that I sometimes get from my wife when I interrupt her reading. "Steve."

I felt bad interrupting. McCain was reading A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's hilarious account of his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, and McCain could use the laughs. Polls in the battleground states make his path to victory look exceedingly difficult, and while some of the national polls suggest that he remains competitive, voters appear increasingly comfortable at the prospect of a President Barack Obama.

This John McCain was a much more subdued and contemplative version of the one who had appeared on stage at the Seagate Convention Center in downtown Toledo, Ohio, two hours earlier and made a spirited case that he--and not Obama--should be the next president of the Untied States.

Most of that case focuses on the economy. And McCain spends much of his time these days thinking and talking about the economic anxieties of average Americans and his plans to ease them. So maybe it should not have come as a surprise that when Chris Wallace asked him to describe the United States after four years of an Obama presidency and Democratic majorities in Congress, McCain spoke exclusively about the economy.

WALLACE: If Barack Obama is elected president with bigger--and it looks likely that that's what's going to happen--Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, how will things be different in this country by the end of his first term?

MCCAIN: Well, we know that the majority leader, Harry Reid, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are already planning on new big spending packages, tax increases, already, so I--I think you'll see another spending spree, and I think taxes will go up, and I don't think that it will be good for America.

I think we could drive--and of course, as we know, protectionism is not good for America. Senator Obama believes that in many ways--certainly, when he said he wanted to unilaterally renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So I worry about the economy of the country, particularly at this difficult time.

When I asked him about his answer, McCain noted, correctly, that his stump speech mentions that we are in two wars and that he has pledged to bring the troops home only in victory. But, he adds, "right now, with people having trouble staying in their homes, keeping their jobs--we've lost over 700,000 jobs already this year--Americans, and I understand it, are focused on the economy."

Earlier Sunday, Colin Powell, a Republican and friend of McCain, had endorsed Obama for president. The move was not a surprise. Powell had offered warm public words for Obama in the past and TWS editor Bill Kristol suggested six weeks ago that such an endorsement was coming. Still, for McCain, it wasn't helpful. Powell made his announcement in dramatic fashion as the exclusive newsmaker on Meet the Press, and had some harsh words for McCain's campaign, saying he was "troubled" and "disappointed." Some of the attacks on Obama, Powell said, had gone "too far."

I noted those words specifically and asked McCain if he had any response to them. "No," he said quietly, shrugging his shoulders with resignation. He paused for a moment then added. "I accept it. I would say I'm disappointed." That was it. So I moved on, asking him about George W. Bush's decision last week to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terror.

"You know, one thing about Colin Powell. I value the endorsement of Haig and Eagleburger, of Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger, as well as many other former national security advisers and more than 200 retired Army generals and admirals," McCain said, repeating a line he had used on Fox News Sunday. Then, without a transition, he answered the North Korea question by strongly disagreeing with Bush's decision--criticizing both the process and the substance of the deal.