According to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong, but these are very, very difficult times.” And while the stock market drops over 500 points – the worse single day on Wall Street since the 9/11 attacks – and the economy continues to melt down as banks, brokerage firms and insurance teeter on collapse, the Senator from Arizona and his running mate, the former mayor of Wassilla, have promised unspecified reform and tout the Senator’s experience. Well, you can put lipstick on a bear (market) but its still a bear.
Of course, with over a quarter century experience in congress for the 72-year-old Arizona politician and all but eight years of that with his party in control of the White House, one has to wonder why he hasn’t led the fight for financial regulatory reform before the current crisis. Well, he did involve himself before in addressing the needs of Charles Keating and the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association in the late 1980’s. He and fellow Senators – the so-called Keating Five – were reprimanded by their peers for corruption and improper lobbying on behalf of Keating in his effort to resist regulators following large contributions he made to them.
According to the New York Times:
Mr. Keating, a Phoenix financier and real estate developer, became an early sponsor and, soon, a friend. He was a man of great confidence and daring, Mr. McCain recalled in his memoir. “People like that appeal to me,” he continued. “I have sometimes forgotten that wisdom and a strong sense of public responsibility are much more admirable qualities.”
During Mr. McCain’s four years in the House, Mr. Keating, his family and his business associates contributed heavily to his political campaigns. The banker gave Mr. McCain free rides on his private jet, a violation of Congressional ethics rules (he later said it was an oversight and paid for the trips). They vacationed together in the Bahamas. And in 1986, the year Mr. McCain was elected to the Senate, his wife joined Mr. Keating in investing in an Arizona shopping mall.
Mr. Keating had taken over the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and used its federally insured deposits to gamble on risky real estate and other investments. He pressed Mr. McCain and other lawmakers to help hold back federal banking regulators.
For years, Mr. McCain complied. At Mr. Keating’s request, he wrote several letters to regulators, introduced legislation and helped secure the nomination of a Keating associate to a banking regulatory board.
By early 1987, though, the thrift was careering toward disaster. Mr. McCain agreed to join several senators, eventually known as the Keating Five, for two private meetings with regulators to urge them to ease up. “Why didn’t I fully grasp the unusual appearance of such a meeting?” Mr. McCain later lamented in his memoir.
When Lincoln went bankrupt in 1989 — one of the biggest collapses of the savings and loan crisis, costing taxpayers $3.4 billion — the Keating Five became infamous. The scandal sent Mr. Keating to prison and ended the careers of three senators, who were rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for intervening. Mr. McCain, who had been a less aggressive advocate for Mr. Keating than the others, was reprimanded only for “poor judgment” and was re-elected the next year.
Some people involved think Mr. McCain got off too lightly. William Black, one of the banking regulators the senator met with, argued that Mrs. McCain’s investment with Mr. Keating created an obvious conflict of interest for her husband. (Mr. McCain had said a prenuptial agreement divided the couple’s assets.) He should not be able to “put this behind him,” Mr. Black said. “It sullied his integrity.”
Now that’s experience American voters can look to in making their judgment about the honorable gentleman from Arizona.
Joe Klein has this take on it at Time Magazine:
John McCain is up with an ad touting his "experience" to deal with the financial crisis. But no specific experience is cited--which is attributable to the fact that McCain has been a happily orthodox Republican when it comes to financial regulation these past 26 years. He's against it. He's against Washington telling you how to run your business. The unseen hand of the market and all that...
This has been the long-standing Republican bait and switch--scaring small businesses with the threat of new regulations if the Democrats win, commiserating with larger businesses about the evils of environmental and plant safety rules, while lifting as many regulations as possible governing the financial titans whose credit should be at the heart of new economic development. But that hasn't been happening: the financial titans have been going for the quick buck rather than the sound one. Money and creativity have been redirected during the Reagan-Bush era away from substantive loans to real businesses into a Ponzi scheme of borrowing by investment bankers, so they could engage in the most irresponsible, if lucrative (for them) speculative lending imaginable...In this sense, the mortgage crisis was a perfect metaphor for Republican financial governance: Investment banks like Lehman--R.I.P.--took loans to invest money in...bad loans. In this case, the loans were bad mortgages. This is called throwing good money after bad.
Actually, John McCain has excellent experience--a ringside seat--in the vagaries of this experiment in greed and anarchy. He was a member of the Keating Five. This was the signature scandal of the Savings and Loan crisis, twenty years ago. It concerned the insider help that five Senators gave Charles Keating and his Lincoln Savings and Loan, in return for contributions and gifts. The deregulation of S&Ls--community banks dedicated to local mortgages (like George Bailey's bank in "It's A Wonderful Life")--enabled slick operators like Keating to make reckless loans in new areas where they had no expertise. The final tab to the taxpayers was $165 billion.
McCain wasn't the worst offender in the scandal. He was included in the Five to make it bipartisan (the other four were Democrats). But he knew Keating, partied with him, made inquiries on his behalf. He once told me that his role in the scandal was harder on him, in some ways, than being a prisoner of war "Because my honor was called into question."
After an experience like that, you might think Senator Honorable would have devoted himself to preventing other such crises--to making sure the Big Wall Street Casino was operating according to rules that wouldn't screw the small investors and, more to the point, the taxpayers. But he walked the anti-regulatory party line, with only occasional exceptions...and tried to lay down a smokescreen of righteousness by campaigning against small potato[e!]s like legislative earmarks--money to study the mating habits of, uh, crabs, in, uh, Alaska (proposed by Governor Honorable).
What we are seeing on Wall Street today is the result of an ideology gone amok. There was call to loosen and change the antiquated regulations governing investment back in 1980. But the Republican era has seen that loosening go to the point of near-cataclysm. Banks are failing, markets dropping. We are in the midst of a slow-motion economic crash. What happens next is an economic contraction: loans aren't available, so businesses can't expand. A crash comes at the beginning of a period of economic trouble.
John McCain, after his political near-death experience, could have made the responsible regulation of markets one of his great causes. He didn't. And today he said, once again, "The fundamentals of our economy are strong." I hope he's right, but it's entirely possible that he knows as much about our economy as Sarah Palin knows about The Bush Doctrine.