A Pal Around McCain

By Harold Meyerson
Monday, October 6, 2008

"There's no question that we have to change the subject here," a senior Republican operative told The Post's Michael D. Shear in a story published Saturday.

The "subject" in question is the economy and how to fix it. As Americans have taken their eye off the ball -- that is, off John McCain's sterling qualities of character and command -- by focusing on the economy, Barack Obama has surged into the lead nationally and in many key battleground states.

So long as the candidates talk about that pesky economy, McCain's handlers have realized, McCain will continue to swoon. Thus the campaign has announced that it will go on the attack again on the momentous topics of Obama's ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, the onetime Weatherman who has been a University of Illinois education professor for nearly two decades.

Campaigning on Saturday in Colorado, Sarah Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists" by associating with Ayers, citing as her source a New York Times story from that morning. In fact, the story concluded that the Obama-Ayers "relationship" consisted of both men attending the board meetings of two Chicago organizations and that there had been no contact between the men, other than bumping into each other on the sidewalk (they live in the same neighborhood), since Obama went to the U.S. Senate in January 2005.

The story of Obama's interaction with Ayers is drenched in irony, since it is basically a tale of Obama being co-opted into Chicago's civic establishment. In 1995, Obama, then a young lawyer with political ambitions but as yet no office, was recruited to chair the board of a school reform organization funded and established by the Annenberg Foundation -- a group that distributes the wealth of the estate of Walter Annenberg, Richard Nixon's ambassador to Britain. It was only then that Obama met Ayers, who already was a board member and a figure in Chicago's education-policy elite. (Mayor Richard Daley, that known radical, told the Times that he had consulted Ayers on education issues for years.)

Go join your city's establishment, and see what it gets you.

But if the McCain people want to rummage through presidential candidates' associations, real or imagined, to turn up figures who threaten to pull down this proud republic, they should begin in-house. Chief among those to whom responsibility attaches for the financial crisis that is plunging the nation into recession is former Texas senator Phil Gramm, McCain's own economic guru.

Gramm was always Wall Street's man in the Senate. As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee during the Clinton administration, he consistently underfunded the Securities and Exchange Commission and kept it from stopping accounting firms from auditing corporations with which they had conflicts of interest. Gramm's piece de resistance came on Dec. 15, 2000, when he slipped into an omnibus spending bill a provision called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), which prohibited any governmental regulation of credit default swaps, those insurance policies covering losses on securities in the event they went belly up. As the housing bubble ballooned, the face value of those swaps rose to a tidy $62 trillion. And as the housing bubble burst, those swaps became a massive pile of worthless paper, because no government agency had required the banks to set aside money to back them up.

The CFMA also prohibited government regulation of the energy-trading market, which enabled Enron to nearly bankrupt the state of California before bankrupting itself.

The problem with this exercise, of course, is that Gramm's relationship to McCain is not comparable to the relationships that Ayers or Wright have with Obama. The idea that either Ayers or Wright would have any impact on the workings of an Obama administration is nonsensical. But Gramm and McCain do have an enduring political and economic alliance. McCain chaired Gramm's short-lived presidential campaign in 1996; Gramm is co-chair of McCain's current effort. McCain has not repudiated reports that Gramm is on the shortlist to become Treasury secretary if McCain is elected, even after Gramm labeled America "a nation of whiners."

If we are to believe his managers, McCain will charge into tomorrow night's debate seeking to "change the subject" from the economy to Obama's dangerous liaisons. It's not, however, likely to be a winning tactic. Obama will argue that in a time of deepening economic crisis, the public deserves a debate in which the candidates focus on their ideas for recovery rather than tendentious attacks on their rival's presumed associates. If pressed, though, he can mention that it is McCain's senior economic adviser who has diminished American solvency and power beyond the wildest dreams of anti-American terrorists.


Read more from Harold Meyerson on washingtonpost.com's new opinion blog, PostPartisan.

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