Conservatives: McCain alienating base on economy

John McCainJohn Sidney McCain Senate outlook slides for GOP Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll MORE has alienated the Republican base by supporting a $700 billion Wall Street bailout and proposing that the federal government buy mortgages facing default, conservative lawmakers and observers say. 

Three conservative House Republicans said Sen. McCain (Ariz.), the party’s presidential nominee, missed an important opportunity to prove his credentials as a proponent of limited government by opposing the massive bailout.


These Republicans declined to speak on the record because they did not want to face political repercussions for criticizing McCain.

“He’s alienated his base,” said one House Republican. “Maverick McCain missed his moment. He could have opposed this and created distance from Bush.”

Another Republican said supporting the bailout would trouble more than members of the Republican base.

“It’s not just his base,” said the lawmaker. “There’s a wide swath of opinion out there that this is not a good deal.”

A third Republican said before the bill cleared Congress: “McCain would do well to remember that Americans don’t like the (Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson plan and Republicans and conservatives hate it.”

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a coalition of House conservatives, defended the GOP nominee’s vote for the $700 billion bailout.

“Principled colleagues could come to different conclusions,” said Hensarling, who explained that many Republicans voted for the legislation because they felt they needed to act and did not have enough time to develop an alternative solution.

“Some viewed it as the last train out of the station,” he said. But he added: “I know there were workable alternatives that could have received bipartisan support.”

Hensarling, who voted against the bill, said he could have teamed up with Democrats, such as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), another opponent of the bailout, to draft “a workable alternative.”

“We could have worked it out in 24 hours if they let us work it out,” he said.

One hundred and eight House Republicans voted against the rescue package, compared to 91 who voted for it.

Tucker Bounds, McCain’s campaign spokesman, defended the candidate’s Homeownership Resurgence Plan, which would direct the treasury secretary to spend up to $300 billion to buy and renegotiate mortgages facing default. Several prominent conservatives have slammed the proposal.

“John McCain’s home resurgence proposal represents absolutely zero additional spending, but instead prioritizes rescuing homeowners before Wall Street,” said Bounds. “There will certainly be criticisms of every proposal, but there is simply no sensible criticism to focusing relief efforts on those Americans facing foreclosure.”

McCain has had a mixed relationship with conservatives during his 26-year congressional career, angering some repeatedly by working with Democrats on issues ranging from campaign finance reform to immigration reform.

Whereas Bush predicated his 2004 campaign on mobilizing the party’s conservative base, McCain has focused on reaching out to independent-minded voters. He has stressed his commitment to environmental protection and downplayed his stance on abortion.

McCain’s most explicit nod to conservatives came when he tapped Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a favorite among social conservatives, as his running mate.

But leading conservatives say that McCain’s recent economic stances threaten to erode the good will he generated by selecting Palin.

Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative activist, openly blasted McCain’s support for the financial stabilization package and called his proposal for the federal purchase of mortgages “throwing money at the problem.”

“There are free-market solutions he could propose that don’t come to his mind because the advice he’s getting from his people is to spend money,” said Viguerie, who said McCain’s team of advisers is full of former lobbyists and other Washington insiders.

Viguerie said McCain is not a true conservative because a true conservative “would have proposed a free-market solution and McCain never proposed any free-market solution.”

Viguerie said McCain urged House Republicans to pass the rescue package so he could change the focus of the presidential campaigns away from the economy.

“He wanted to get this off the national table and get it behind him,” said Viguerie. “He didn’t care how much money was on the table.”

Viguerie and other conservative activists wanted McCain to propose cutting capital gains taxes and business taxes as an alternative way to jumpstart the economy and restore the flow of credit.

Conservatives would have also liked McCain to push for reform or abolition of the Community Reinvestment Act, which conservatives claim pressured banks to lend to risky borrowers. The act was intended to encourage banks to meet “the credit needs of the communities in which they operate, including low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, consistent with safe and sound operations,” according to the Federal Reserve.

The Club for Growth, a leading advocate for smaller government and lower taxes, came out strongly against the bailout.

The Club has urged McCain push for several of the same proposals endorsed by Viguerie: eliminating capital gains taxes and cutting corporate tax rates.

Conservative commentator George Will has noted that conservatives don’t like the Homeownership Resurgence Plan McCain unveiled at last week’s debate. The proposal calls for the government to buy mortgages directly from homeowners and mortgage servicers and replace them with more affordable fixed-rate mortgages.

“He proposes several hundred billions more for his American Homeownership Resurgence — you cannot have too many surges — Plan,” Will wrote in a column Thursday.

“Under it, the government would buy mortgages that homeowners cannot — or perhaps would just rather not — pay, and replace them with cheaper ones. When he proposed this, conservatives participating in MSNBC's "dial group" wrenched their dials in a wrist-spraining spasm of disapproval.”

Michelle Malkin, a conservative blogger, slammed McCain’s proposal in recent dispatch.

“I can’t underscore enough what a rotten idea John McCain’s ACORN-like government mortgage buy-up is,” Malkin wrote.

“He spent the entire debate assailing massive government spending — while his featured proposal of the night was to heap on more massive government spending to pursue homeownership/retention at all costs.”