The conventional wisdom on this year's election is that John McCain would be the strongest candidate the Republicans could send against the Democrats come November. I believe it myself. And yet, as the economy continues to deflate, the prospects for a McCain presidency are deflating as well.
The affable McCain has on more than one occasion affably admitted that the economy is not his strong suit. It's an admission you can make when you're confident that your bona fides on national security will eclipse your economic deficiencies. And that confidence is evident in McCain's view of the world, and of himself. The "transcendent challenge" of our time, he says in his stump speech, is "radical Islamic terrorism." Given that, who better to fight it than McCain?
But suppose we face challenges that are just as great and defining as those that McCain highlights. Suppose, come fall, that American voters are also concerned about the immediate soundness of the economy -- that is, their jobs, incomes, health coverage and ability to put their kids through college. Suppose that their anxiety over the long-term prospects of the U.S. economy -- over the long-term prospects of America itself -- mounts every time that our banks and other major businesses sell chunks of themselves to Middle Eastern oil interests and the Chinese state.
McCain's first crack at a stimulus package stressed a theme he has sounded throughout his career -- reining in federal spending on projects earmarked in congressional appropriations. Whatever the merits of McCain's proposal in general, however, its effect today would be to further deflate our already tanking economy. It's an anti-stimulus proposal. If McCain, in arguing for the surge in Iraq, had proposed arming our troops with pom-poms, it would have been no less ludicrous than his proposal to cut spending at a time when lending is sharply contracting.
That said, I don't think the various candidates' stimulus packages will matter that much as voters sort out their primary preferences. What's vexing voters is anxiety that America's economic preeminence has peaked -- that our major banks and corporations have exported our productive capacities to China, even as our dependence on oil is exporting our consumption capacities to the Middle East. No xenophobia is required to note that America's rise as a 19th-century industrial power was largely funded by British capital, that as the economic powerhouse of the 20th century, America funded the rise of other nations' economies, and that today, some of those nations are funding us so we can keep buying goods and commodities from them.
This is where McCain's narrative of what ails our economy -- indeed, all the Republicans' narratives of what ails the economy -- is woefully off point. Like his fellow GOP candidates, McCain stresses the need to aid American business in getting our economy back on track.
This is unexceptionable as far as it goes, except that it's the offshoring proclivities of American big business that to a large degree landed us in this fix in the first place. Tax breaks to businesses must be conditioned on their using those funds to stimulate Cincinnati, not Shenzhen. And if we really wish to create good jobs at home, the kind of "mega-greening" projects that the Democrats are talking up are far more likely than across-the-board corporate tax cuts to deliver the goods. (To his credit, McCain favors creating green jobs; to his discredit, he favors those across-the-board corporate tax cuts.)
The larger question -- one that Americans have never had to consider -- is this: What constitutes national security at a time when the American economy may be declining while the economies of such nations as China and Saudi Arabia, whose values are quite distinct from ours, are expanding at our expense? Is a national security candidate, or a national security party, really one that keeps us in Iraq while lagging behind in supporting research and development of alternative energy sources? Is it in our national security interest to say and do nothing when U.S. multinationals in China actively oppose granting labor rights to Chinese workers, something that could create a crack in the Communist Party's control?
Until now, Americans' discussions of national security have taken our economic preeminence as the Great Given. But unless the Republican national security hawks show some inkling of understanding that Wall Street and many U.S.-based multinationals have enriched themselves and our nation's rivals at America's expense, they are not really national security hawks at all. And Democrats, reluctant as they too may be to break with Wall Street, will wrest at least some of the security mantle -- and quite possibly the White House -- from the Republicans' grasp.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Post.