Thursday, October 9, 2008



October 9, 2008

By Sebastian Mallaby

A couple of points on Tuesday’s debate.

When the candidates were asked whom they might appoint as Treasury secretary, Obama dodged the question -- as one might expect. But McCain straight-talked it, which turned out to be a big mistake. His first answer, Warren Buffett, conveyed the right general idea but no grasp of reality. Yes, Buffett has the power to inspire market confidence; but he does that better by investing his own money (as he has done recently) than by investing the government’s. The second name McCain threw out was even more troubling. Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay? Doesn’t McCain know there is a difference between succeeding in Silicon Valley and figuring out how to unfreeze credit markets? Before running eBay, Whitman worked at Hasbro, where, according to Fast Company, she managed the Playskool brand and Mr. Potato Head.

The candidates were also asked to say which issue they would tackle with most urgency: health care, energy policy or entitlement reform. Obama’s answer suggested that entitlement reform would come at the bottom of his list, and given the budget strains that the government now faces, this was not encouraging. But McCain’s response was downright curious. “My friends, some of this $700 billion ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations,” he said, in an out-of-left-field reference to the Paulson bank bailout plan. But what really got me was when McCain answered that he’d prioritize everything, saying “all of these things we can do as Americans.”

I don’t really intend to pick on McCain here, since most politicians succumb to this Americans-can-do-everything trope. But the truth is that the United States is a great nation because its businesses are good at not doing everything: They close down units that aren’t succeeding in order to focus on what they do best. American business productivity grew faster than that of foreign rivals during the 1990s thanks to constant and ruthless prioritization. If only Whitman would tell McCain that.

Comments from Readers

Wasn't McCain referring to how much of Americans' money ends up in the coffers of Middle East countries who sell us their oil but don't have our best interests in mind? I'm no McCain fan, but I think you misinterpreted his "$700 billion" comment.

Posted by: Heron | October 8, 2008

I believe McCain’s reference to the $700 billion isn't linked to Paulson's plan, but rather is a reference to the figure T. Boone Pickens has been floating in his recent ads. This is estimated to be the amount that Americans are spending on imported foreign oil. That insight might make McCain's comments more understandable given the popular belief that some of the money from foreign oil ends up making it's way to terrorists. But it certainly doesn't excuse McCain from the need to explain to his audience what he's talking about.

Posted by: ScottKC | October 8, 2008

ScottKC is correct that the figure referenced by McCain was to imported oil. However, since when are Canada and Mexico terrorists? (the two countries we import the most oil from) Also, that $700 billion is an enormous overestimate, it's closer to $500 billion (in total).

Posted by: joggle | October 8, 2008

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

"That One"

What a very odd thing for McCain to say.

McCain repeatedly invoked the need for a "steady hand on the tiller" tonight--for someone who will be calm and cool in the crises that the upcoming years will present us.

Yet this is a man who is utterly unable to contain his contempt--even on a night when, even as Bill Bennett says, he needed to "break through", and even when such a strange expression of disdain could only highlight pettiness, anger and partisanship that voters wish that candidates would steer away from in the greater interest of the nation.

McCain's fundamental position--one from which he finds his momentum and meaning--is so often one of a contemptuous anger for those who do not understand what he believes he has learned--e.g., "them".

This is the impulsive, gut-driven, black and white thinking that we have seen throughout the campaign.

We have had 8 years of a President driven by impulsive, black and white, gut-driven, categorical thinking. In those 8 years, from a position that manifested from the very start an angry, assumed knowledge, and a contempt for the position of others, we have now seen the results.

So this time: choose that one.

Posted by: caraprado1 | October 8, 2008

There was a time, not very long ago, when I felt Sen. McCain got screwed out of the Rep nomination back in 00. They picked a wank they could we got "W". Never mind the legalized theft of Gore's win, I didn't vote for "that" (w), any sooner than I would have voted for Reagan. Never the less, I voted for Ford, and would again. Can't find a soul who'll admit they voted for Carter. Uh, human nature. McCain "was" the man in 2000. He clearly isn't now. Once again I'm voting a "No Confidence" Love Live Nadar. I used to have faith in the "Republic", but I'm tired of getting peed on.

Posted by: bluemonday | October 8, 2008

Clearly you just don't get it.

Mr. Potato Head would be an intellectual in the Know Nothing Party.

In the 1960's JFK reached out to the best and brightest in academia and the business world to join his cabinet.

In 2008, Honest John and Sister Sarah will similarly reach outside of the Beltway. I can see it now David Duke, Jim Dobson, Pat Robertson. The sort of folks who will bring us squarely into the 11th Century.

Posted by: R49Thomas | October 8, 2008

"If only Whitman would tell McCain that."

Sen. McCain is aware that it's a economic reality that businesses must compete and it's the efficient and productibve that survive. It was Sen. Obama who was the one who played to local demagoguery in Ohio by attacking the effects of NAFTA as bad for the country. Sen. McCain was honest in Ohio and, in response to a question, replied that NAFTA resulted in a net increase to the USA in jobs. In Ohio, that's like gripping the third rail. Yet somehow Sen. McCain is seen as bad on the economy and out of touch.
I never agreed with the Republican attacks on the media but stuff like this starts to make that position seem credible. Sen. Obama gets a free pass - Sen. McCain's positions are misrepresented or the most minor errors spotlighted.

Posted by: 10-4Archer5 | October 8, 2008

I'm with Heron. I think McCain was referring to oil money and didn't notice it happened to be the bailout amount also. I am favoring Obama for so many reasons and first and foremost, it will be better for the country.

Posted by: GaiasChild | October 8, 2008

Mr. Mallaby, it was Obama who suggested Warren Buffet as a replacement to the Treasury Secretary, not John McCain. Also, I think you mistook the discussion where Obama and McCain were asked to prioritize their spending goals -- not their budget-cutting goals, which it appears you took the exchange to be about. Obama placed entitlement programs as a third place priority on spending, saying he may have to put off some of the initiatives he'd like to implement due to the budget crisis.

No wonder the answers from the candidates seemed to be "not encouraging" or "out of left field." It hardly seems as if you were even watching the debate. Maybe you're just cribbing from YouTube or the talking heads on TV. In any case, I suggest you rewatch the debate in it's entirety and try for a do-over.

Posted by: ewyeth | October 8, 2008

I loved my Mr. Potato Head, and found the one from my childhood on E-Bay. That doesn't mean Meg Whitman should be the Treasury secretary. McCain sounded much like George W. Bush on that one - put his buddies, biggest contributors and those to whom he owes favors in high positions. Who cares about qualifications, right? As long as your friends and yes men get their reward.

Posted by: corridorg4 | October 8, 2008

Warren Buffet should be in charge of tax policies. Maybe be head of the IRS. Even he admitted that the tax system favors the very rich. He admitted his tax rate is much lower than even his own secretary's. I think he said his is 15% hers is like 30%. And the Republicans are complaining about Obama giving the top 5% richest in the country getting a tax increase? Give me a break?

Posted by: jw360 | October 9, 2008

What's Warren Buffet going to do as Treasury secretary? You know what he will advise to do. Put all taxpayer money in Coca-Cola. That will solve the deficity. That's all he knows how to do, just knowing where to invest his money. And because of his high profile, alot people probably put their money where he puts it too, and his stocks increase. Wow, he's a genius!

Posted by: jw360 | October 9, 2008

All that prioritizing and efficiency made for growing businesses...with fewer people. And was part of the funnelling of ever more money to the top few while putting many middle class out of work or scrounging for low-paying jobs.

Posted by: Lanark1 | October 9, 2008

Slo why isn't WAPO and its phony Obama Shills like Malleby investigating why the
readers and US taxpayers should be giving AIG money to bail out Democrat Speaker
Nutcase Nancy Pelosi's $36 Million Dollars in AIG Stock? Or the five top Democrats
Campaign Contributions from Frannie Ma and Freddie Mac including the top two
Democrats Sen Chris Dodd,Barack Hussein Obama and Hillary Clinton now then? Hell
even Fox News practices more Fair and Balanced Reporting of this than WAPO!
No Wonder WAPO Circulation is on the skids!

Posted by: Ralphinphnx | October 9, 2008 9