April 16, 2008

McCainiac? Nope, just old-fashion discussion on the issues

I was able to attend Sen. John McCain's "Wisconsin Economic Summit" today in South Milwaukee. Here's what I saw:

It's the first time I've seen the presumptive Republican presidential nominee (all media types are using "presumptive," since he hasn't officially been nominated yet), and he looked good. Questions will be raised about his age during the campaign (he's 71 and would be the oldest president elected to a first term in U.S. history), but he looks good. I can't see this being a major issue (and if it is, things have gone real negative). Let me add, McCain actually started his event on time. That can happen when you have 13 corporate CEOs in attendance (all with calendars to keep), but I found this impressive. These events are usually an hour late.

About 300 people showed up. Most seemed to be Bucyrus employees and and Republican invitees. It wasn't a campaign event. OK, it was a campaign event, but it wasn't a rally. This led to a very different tone than when Sens. Obama and Clinton zipped through the area. There were no signs or hoopla, no loud cheering and, really, no feeling of an election underway. I had to leave a bit early, but McCain didn't mention his opponents in the first hour and a half. He's obviously trying to direct attention to his economic policies, but it did have something of a feel of officials getting together and chatting about the business world.

This was cool. The guy in the middle holding up his finger is Marko Eremija, a Serbian born immigrant who lives in South Milwaukee and has worked as a crane operator for Bucyrus International (host of the summit) for 37 years. McCain mentioned Eremija to the crowd after they met while McCain toured the plant. Eremija told the senator that he has three kids who live in Arizona, McCain's home state.

The woman to the right of McCain is Carly Fiorina, best known as the former head of Hewlett-Packard, and one of the few women to hold a prominent role in the high-tech industry. Fiorina is a rock star in the computer world, and it was coup that McCain got her to moderate the first of two hour-long panels. At least, I thought it was a coup.

Substance wise, it's hard to say much came out of the summit. McCain talked up his economic policy he released yesterday, pushing a gas tax holiday this summer (that would save about 18 cents per gallon at the pump), corporate tax cuts, doubling the federal tax credit for dependents to $7,000 and several other proposals meant to walk a line between benefits for people and businesses (here's the Washington Post's take. Here's a more sympathetic take from U.S. News & World Report.) My only thought as he listed off everything he wants to do is the same as when I hear any politician list off what they want to do: 1.) How is he going to pay for this? 2.) How will it ever get past the opposition party? His answers were pretty trite: cut spending and come together around bipartisan solutions. Yeah, and maybe politicians will stop listening to special interests and agree to end negative campaigning.

State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia, was there (and I think that's State Sen. Alberta Darling he's talking to). Vos' first comment on McCain's summit: "It's straight talk." Sigh. Vos is very good at staying on message. Seriously, though, he saw a lot of truth in McCain's words, particularly when it came to Racine. How does an aging industrial city compete in the global market? McCain believes the U.S. needs to cut corporate taxes, work out free trade agreements and train U.S. workers for jobs. "If you're graduating high school now, you should be able to get a job to sustain yourself," Vos said.

This is a lousy photo, but I liked the big American flag in the background. All in all, I thought McCain showed some interesting flashes. Twice he put CEOs on the defensive with tough question (I wrote about those here), and I appreciated the fact that a politician could organize an event without stuffing it full of campaign rhetoric. Granted, the understated approach surrounded by CEOs on the floor of a heavy industrial factory with a giant American flag hung in the background is pretty heavy in campaign symbolism. But the whole event had a very laid back feel to it. No security checks of reporters, no Secret Service hovering around the stage, no rousing cheers or nasty attacks, just a bunch of guys (and Carly) talking about the economy. Was it diverse? No. Was it substantive? No. Was it informative? Yes.

I suspect the McCain campaign is slow-rolling the idea that the most important issue of this presidential campaign will be the economy, an issue where he's leading his Democratic rivals. But that other issue is hanging out there, and we were reminded in Racine this week that it's very relevant to our community.

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