McCain Dogged By His Economic Comments

Republican presidential nominee John McCain is facing tough questions about how he would deal with the current financial crisis. Earlier in the campaign he admitted that he was not an expert on Wall Street. On Thursday, he proposed creating a trust to review mortgage and financial institutions, identify weaker ones and strengthen them before insolvency.

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DAVID GREENE:

I'm David Greene, traveling with Senator McCain, a candidate who probably didn't want this election to be about the economy. Let's go back for a moment to the New Hampshire primary.

(Soundbite of campaign speech, December 17, 2007)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee): Now, I am not an expert on Wall Street. I am not an expert on some of this stuff. I've...

GREENE: That's McCain at a town-hall meeting nine months ago. Around the same time, he was on NBC's "Meet the Press," and the late Tim Russert did one thing he loved to do, recite some of his guest's own words.

(Soundbite of TV show "Meet the Press," January 27, 2008)

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Former Host, "Meet the Press"): Quote, "I'm going to be honest. I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign-policy issues. I still need to be educated." Wall Street Journal, November 26th, 2005. You repeated it to the Boston Globe in December of '07. You said it.

Sen. MCCAIN: OK. Let me tell you what I was trying to say and what I meant, and it's obvious. I spent 22 years in the military. I spent 20 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I've been involved in national-security issues all my life. I attended the National War College. Of course I know more about national security than any other issue. That's been my entire life. Am I smart on economics? Yes.

GREENE: Fast forward to this week, and McCain faces the reality that the economy is now consuming the campaign. Maybe it's not McCain's comfort zone. He did spend some of this week finding his footing, after saying initially that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. But his strategy seemed to be coming together yesterday when he visited Iowa.

(Soundbite of campaign speech, September 18, 2008)

Sen. MCCAIN: Great to have the opportunity to be back in the heartland of America, and I mean that with...

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GREENE: McCain said he knows people are struggling.

Sen. MCCAIN: Right now, you are hurting, and it's not your fault. It started at the top, and it started in Washington, and it started on Wall Street, and we're going to fix it.

GREENE: McCain's faced questions all week about how he can fix Wall Street when he's never been a fan of government regulation. He responded to that criticism yesterday by getting specific. He proposed something new called the Mortgage and Financial Institutions Trust, to keep an eye pealed for financial institutions that are buckling.

Sen. MCCAIN: This will get the Treasury and other financial regulatory authorities in a proactive position, instead of reacting in a crisis mode to one situation after the other.

GREENE: McCain said he'll keep those proposals coming. But much of his speech in Iowa was not about his plans, but about Barack Obama. That's certainly typical at the stage of the campaign. And McCain is also mindful Obama could gain traction with the economy in the headlines. McCain came out swinging.

Sen. MCCAIN: My opponent sees an economic crisis as a political opportunity instead of a time to lead. Senator Obama isn't change. He's part of the problem in Washington.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GREENE: After he wrapped up, McCain stopped briefly in a Cedar Rapids neighborhood that was ravaged by floods this summer. He stood quietly with reporters on a street surrounded by empty, gutted homes.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Sen. MCCAIN: This is obviously reminiscent in some ways, frankly, of New Orleans after Katrina.

GREENE: Then, for a moment, he got philosophical.

Sen. MCCAIN: The role of government in America, I say as a fiscal conservative, is to help Americans in time of disaster. They have experienced a disaster, and their assistance is overdue.

GREENE: And that may capture the argument McCain has to make right now, that a fiscal conservative like himself will reach out with the government's helping hand when times were tough. David Greene, NPR News, traveling with the McCain campaign.

(Soundbite of music)

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