Meet John McCain, New Deal Democrat.
At last night’s presidential debate, McCain shocked many of fellow Republicans by proposing the largest and most expensive government intervention in the housing market in U.S. history.
Specifically, McCain announced that he would spend tell his treasury secretary to spend $300 billion to buy the mortgages of homeowners in financial trouble and replace them with more affordable loans. The program, which McCain calls the American Homeownership Resurgence Plan -– there’s that word “surge” again — would be available to mortgagors for whom the property is their primary residence, who can prove they were creditworthy when the original loan was made, and who made a down payment.
According to the McCain campaign:
“John McCain will direct his Treasury Secretary to implement an American Homeownership Resurgence Plan (McCain Resurgence Plan) to keep families in their homes, avoid foreclosures, save failing neighborhoods, stabilize the housing market and attack the roots of our financial crisis.”
“America’s families are bearing a heavy burden from falling housing prices, mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures, and a weak economy. It is important that those families who have worked hard enough to finance homeownership not have that dream crushed under the weight of the wrong mortgage. The existing debts are too large compared to the value of housing. For those that cannot make payments, mortgages must be re-structured to put losses on the books and put homeowners in manageable mortgages. Lenders in these cases must recognize the loss that they’ve already suffered.”
“The McCain Resurgence Plan would purchase mortgages directly from homeowners and mortgage servicers, and replace them with manageable, fixed-rate mortgages that will keep families in their homes. By purchasing the existing, failing mortgages the McCain resurgence plan will eliminate uncertainty over defaults, support the value of mortgage-backed derivatives and alleviate risks that are freezing financial markets.”
“The McCain resurgence plan would be available to mortgage holders that:
- Live in the home (primary residence only)
- Can prove their creditworthiness at the time of the original loan (no falsifications and provided a down payment).”
“The new mortgage would be an FHA-guaranteed fixed-rate mortgage at terms manageable for the homeowner. The direct cost of this plan would be roughly $300 billion because the purchase of mortgages would relieve homeowners of ‘negative equity’ in some homes. Funds provided by Congress in recent financial market stabilization bill can be used for this purpose; indeed by stabilizing mortgages it will likely be possible to avoid some purposes previously assumed needed in that bill.”
“The plan could be implemented quickly as a result of the authorities provided in the stabilization bill, the recent housing bill, and the U.S. government’s conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It may be necessary for Congress to raise the overall borrowing limit.”
This certainly doesn’t sound like a Republican plan to me.
In fact, it isn’t.
As the New York Times has pointed out, “The mortgage renewal idea actually originated with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain. And Mrs. Clinton, who proposed the idea in a recent newspaper column, borrowed it from a Depression-era New Deal agency, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation.”
How seriously should we take McCain’s plan?
First, we should appreciate what a stunning turn-around this proposal is for John McCain, who has previously railed against the “moral hazard” of bailing out homeowners who took out larger mortgages than they could afford.
Only last March, McCain declared — in response to the Hillary Clinton plan that McCain has now closely appropriated — that “it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers.”
As the New York Times then observed, “Mr. McCain’s remarks on Tuesday represented a stark tonal shift from the increasing calls for helping homeowners, as he faulted not only borrowers who engaged in risky lending, but suggested that some homeowners engaged in dangerous financial practices. ‘Some Americans bought homes they couldn’t afford, betting that rising prices would make it easier to refinance later at more affordable rates,’ he said. Mr. McCain argued that even during the ongoing crisis, the vast majority of mortgage holders continued to make their payments. ‘Of those 80 million homeowners, only 55 million have a mortgage at all, and 51 million homeowners are doing what is necessary — working a second job, skipping a vacation and managing their budgets to make their payments on time,’ he said. ‘That leaves us with a puzzling situation: how could 4 million mortgages cause this much trouble for us all?’”
Second, we should note that McCain’s point man for the plan is his senior economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Holtz-Eakin was the Chief Economist for the President’s Council of Economic Advisors under President George W. Bush and Senior Staff Economist for President George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors. He was, therefore, as responsible for the deregulation that lead to the mortgage mess as any single economist could be. (He was also the person who claimed that McCain was responsible for the invention of the Blackberry phone.) If we are to take McCain’s proposal seriously, then we must assume that Holt-Eakin has also had a Saint Paul-like sudden conversion and is now not a Bushite but a New Deal Democrat.
Third, we should look at the conservative reaction to McCain’s plan. If they thought that McCain was serious about his plan, they’d be exploding with condemnation and accusations of betrayal. But, so far, the National Review has nothing to say about it. Conservative blogs mostly call it “pandering” — and while they’re not happy about it, they understand it as an election ploy. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t seem very upset either, taking an uncharacteristically wait-and-see attitude toward a proposal that would violate the foundational principles of modern Republican economics: “The idea must have puzzled many viewers and we’ll reserve judgment until we see the fine print,” the Journal said.” At a glance, it doesn’t sound like something Democrats would oppose — and elections are decided on differences.”
The McCain proposal isn’t serious, and few conservatives believe that either (1) McCain will win (and therefore be in a position to implement the plan) or (2) that McCain would implement the plan if elected.
I suggest that McCain’s new homeowner bailout program should really be called the “McCain Campaign Resurgence Plan.”
Falling precipitously behind in the polls, especially in so-called “swing states” like Ohio, Florida and Michigan that have been hit hard by foreclosures and falling home prices, McCain has suddenly — and unconvincingly — decided that his favorite president is not Ronald Reagan but Franklin Roosevelt.
I’m not buying it.
Nevertheless, it is a watershed moment in American political history when the Republican candidate for President — and self-described foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution — attempts to outdo the Democratic candidate as a New Deal Liberal.
Now that a few days have passed and the McCain campaign has repeated its call for a $300 billion bailout of mortgage holders at taxpayer’s expense, conservatives have taken the proposal seriously enough to lambast it.
CNN.com offers a good roundup of conservative commentary:
” In a sharply worded editorial on its Web site Thursday, the editors of The National Review — an influential bastion of conservative thought — derided the plan as “creating a level of moral hazard that is unacceptable” and called it a “gift to lenders who abandoned any sense of prudence during the boom years.”
“Prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin went one step further, calling the plan “rotten” and declaring on her blog, ‘We’re Screwed ’08’.”
“Matt Lewis, a contributing writer for the conservative Web site Townhall.com, told CNN the plan only further riles conservatives upset with McCain’s backing of the massive government bailout plan passed last week.”
“‘Fundamentally, the problem is John McCain accepts a lot of liberal notions, unfortunately. There is somewhat of a populist streak,’ he said. ‘Most conservatives really did not like the bailout to begin with, and this was really kind of picking at the scab’.”