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McCain’s Challenge

Substantively, this has been the worst week of John McCain’s campaign — and I mean since its beginning, in early 2007. With a perfect argument to make on his own behalf — that he saw the problems with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and called them out in 2005 while others were still angling for their largesse, and that therefore he possesses the experience and demonstrated the kind of leadership and insight that are required for the presidency  — he instead flailed about.  Calling for the firing of Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Chris Cox? Right there, in that act, we got a glimpse of why senators so often make bad presidential candidates. From time immemorial, senators haughtily acts as though the dismissal of executive branch officials is a form of policymaking when it is almost always the opposite — an act of scapegoating.

As SEC chairman, Cox only possesses the regulatory authority granted to him by acts of Congress, i.e., by senators like McCain. Cox did not and does not possess the regulatory authority to halt the creation of the poorly collateralized securities that nearly brought Wall Street down last week. But the naming and pursuit of villains was McCain’s gut instinct last week, as he seemed to attempt to don Teddy Roosevelt’s mantle as the crusader against “malefactors of great wealth.”

After a decent speech on the matter on Friday, McCain seemed to regain his footing a bit. But on Sunday night he took a gobstopping turn back into the intellectual muck. Speaking on “60 Minutes,” he seemed to suggest that he would like to consider Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general of New York, to succeed Cox.

Andrew Cuomo is a highly problematic public official. His tenure as Housing Secretary under Bill Clinton was marked by exactly the kind of queasy-making Washington behavior against which McCain rails — especially the use of investigative instruments at his disposal in an attempt to destroy the career of his own department’s inspector general when she wouldn’t spin reports about criminal behavior inside the agency in a way he liked. And that isn’t even to speak to his role in the expansion of the mortgage market that is at the heart of this crisis.

The first presidential debate takes place on Friday night. It’s supposed to be about foreign policy, but it’s likely that at least a third of it will deal with the financial crisis. If McCain doesn’t get his head on straight and start talking like a serious-minded person with a sophisticated sense of the stakes, he will blow the debate and lose the election. Just like that.



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