WASHINGTON -- Hurling a compliment at Barack Obama in the hope of wounding him, Hillary Clinton's campaign has said that his proposals for responding to the economy's housing-related credit woes put him "to the right of the Bush administration." Her complaint is that the government spending and other market interventions that he proposes are a bit less flamboyant than hers.
Now, getting to the right of an administration that has increased federal spending twice as fast as did her husband's administration is a snap, and a virtue. But it is John McCain's policy minimalism -- these things are relative -- that merits compliments.
He says "it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers." For now, he is with Senate Republicans in opposing the Democrats' proposal to empower judges to rewrite the terms of some mortgages, an idea that strikes at the sanctity of contracts and hence at the ethic of promise-keeping that is fundamental to social life. He opposes an additional dose of the toxin that has made the credit system sick -- he favors strengthening rather than weakening down-payment requirements for loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration. And he has admirably avoided the rhetoric of victimology, such as that used when The Washington Post editorialized that "Lenders pushed tens of billions of dollars in potentially high-interest mortgage debt on people ill-equipped to handle it."
Pertinent questions were elided by the Post's formulation of the problem, a formulation in the spirit of the liberal narrative about "predatory" lenders. How much pushing of lenders was required when they were being pushed by a bipartisan political consensus that, such are the community benefits from homeownership, it should be maximized? What portion of the subprime borrowers currently in distress -- 30 percent? 50? 70? -- lunged for loans requiring 5 percent or less (if any) down payments and fibbed about their financial assets and capabilities?
With the command-and-control propensity of contemporary liberalism, Clinton predictably advocates a policy that has a record, running from Roman times to the present, that is unblemished by success. It is the policy of price controls: Her proposed five-year freeze on interest rates would be a control on the price of money.
Obama says McCain's (again, relatively) noninterventionist response to credit difficulties proves that he favors a "you're on your own" society. McCain, a center-right candidate seeking to lead a center-right country, should embrace Obama's accusation as an accolade, saying: