At last night’s second presidential debate, John McCain made what will surely be regarded as his umpteenth Hail Mary throw. In response to a question from an audience member regarding ways the federal government can bail people out of “economic ruin,” McCain said this:
I would order the Secretary of the Treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes – at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make those – be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.
Aside from the fact that McCain’s sudden epiphany is already part of the bailout package, McCain’s attempt, less than four weeks before the election, to transform himself from the champion of laissez faire economics to the great patron saint of government intervention into private markets may backfire.
Surely this comment was tailor made for battleground states like Michigan and Florida, which have been disproportionately hit by the foreclosure crisis. If voters in those states who are struggling to make their mortgage payments are fooled into believing this was actually McCain’s idea, they may decide to vote for McCain. However, the reverse may also be true of his core constituency. Republicans are generally not in favor of government welfare programs, and this can be easily construed as such a program. Interpreted through the lens of McCain’s base, McCain is effectively saying “sure, I know you were foolish enough to buy a home you couldn’t possibly afford, but rather than allow you to suffer the consequences of your own fiscal stupidity, I’m going to take Joe Six-Pack’s tax money and give it to you, to save you from your own ignorance.”
Some voters, both republican and democrat, dislike the idea that the government is going to reward the foolhardy financial decisions of people who bought a house they should have known they couldn’t afford, effectively shifting the burden from those people to the responsible Americans who budget properly. After all, don’t Republican pundits label this as socialism – taking money from responsible taxpayers and “redistributing it” to people who make unwise financial decisions? By attempting to claim this idea as his own, McCain risks being inexorably linked to it, making his base view him as the one trying to play the part of Robin Hood. Thus, even if McCain’s latest Hail Mary (probably more accurately described as an interception attempt) wins him some votes from distressed homeowners in battleground states, those votes could come at the expense not only of support from his Party, but also of other potential votes both in those states and in Republican strongholds. In short, with this Hail Mary, McCain risks alienating his base at a time he can ill afford to do so.