Ballot Box

Compassionate Corporatism

McCain vs. Bush on corporate corruption.

As John McCain begins today’s speech to the National Press Club on corporate reform, it’s clear to many of us in the audience that we’re not going to get a reprise of the speech President Bush gave on Wall Street two days ago. We can see from the text of the speech that McCain’s proposals differ from Bush’s. But what really sets the two men apart is their body language. Bush looked sad about corruption; McCain looks angry. Bush talked about corporate cheaters as though they were wayward members of his family; McCain talks about them as though they’re thugs.

Bush’s presentation on Tuesday was lethargic and matter of fact. He conveyed paternal disappointment at the misconduct of some executives but emphasized how few they were. He sought to reassure investors, not to upset them.

McCain’s demeanor is the opposite. Unlike Bush, who opened his Tuesday remarks with a smile, McCain maintains a stony face throughout his speech. He delivers his toughest words through clenched teeth. He calls corporate offenders “selfish,” “unethical,” and “self-serving.” He decries “reckless greed,” “sweetheart loans,” and “crony capitalism.” In the Q and A, he warns of “lobbyists crawling all over Capitol Hill” to dilute accounting reform. It’s hard to imagine Bush speaking this way about the business community. The difference between Bush’s speech and McCain’s is the difference between being lectured by the pope and being lectured by an enraged Calvinist minister.

Where Bush looks for conscience and good behavior, McCain looks for a fight. McCain mistrusts niceness. He scorns the impotence of “pleas for character building.” He flexes his eyebrows derisively as he recalls the promise of Harvey Pitt, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to make SEC oversight “kinder and gentler.” Facing an audience of reporters, the senator chides “business journalists that have grown too comfortable on their beat to look beyond a corporation’s annual report.” He devours a hostile question and invites the reporter to take another shot at him. In McCain’s world, hate is as important as love. “To love the free market,” he concludes in the final sentence of his speech, “is to loathe the scandalous behavior of those who have betrayed” it.

The temperamental split between the two men leads to an ideological split. Bush says there’s more goodness in the private sector than the public sees; McCain says there’s more corruption. Bush blames a few bad apples; McCain blames “pressures” that he calls “systemic.” Both men defend the free market, but McCain kicks conservative dogma in the teeth. “The current threat to our prosperity comes not from overregulation,” he says, but from “diffident oversight” of corporations.

In turn, the ideological split produces a policy split. Bush ducked the issue of executive stock options; McCain says options “must be reported as an operating expense.” Bush proposed to confine government intervention in executive compensation to cases of fraud; McCain says all executives should be forbidden to sell stock in their companies until they depart. Bush said Pitt deserves to stay in his job; McCain says Pitt must go.

Is McCain angry enough to run against Bush? The senator’s words suggest not. He praises Bush’s speech and vouches for the president’s sincerity. But McCain drops a pair of hints that more lurks beneath the surface. When asked about controversial transactions in Bush’s own business career, McCain says, “I’m confident the president will give a full explanation of anything that happened.” That’s an answer worthy of Tom Daschle. And when asked whether the current corporate scandals add up to “a platform for a potential challenge” to Bush by an independent candidate, McCain issues an elaborate reply about the purely legislative nature of his intentions. Not until the senator finishes talking about himself does the reporter point out, ever so gently, that the question wasn’t about him.