The photo ops seemed tailor-made for a liberal Democrat, the sort of candidate who believes that the federal government is the solution, not the problem.
But instead there was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain walking through the still-moldering remains of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, taking a direct swipe at President Bush by declaring that "never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way that it was handled." There he was in Kentucky coal country, visiting the weathered porch where Lyndon Johnson announced the "War on Poverty" in 1964. There he was in Alabama's Black Belt, where people live without sewer systems, dancing as elderly quilters serenaded him with spirituals. And before the broken windows of a shuttered steel factory in Youngstown, Ohio, he said he felt America's economic pain. "People are hurting," he said. "These are difficult times."
Such was the parade of images and sound-bites that filtered out from McCain's "It's Time For Action" tour of America's "forgotten places." But for all the imagery clearly designed to undermine negative stereotypes of insensitive, fat-cat Republican candidates, McCain didn't stray from his conservative principles, offering policy prescriptions that were largely drawn from the small-government quiver.
Rather than promise much new federal money to address poverty, he spoke of "controlling spending" and scrubbing federal agencies for waste. Rather than announce any major anti-poverty initiatives, he proposed a three-month holiday from the gasoline tax, some subsidies for rural Internet providers and a doubling of the tax credit for families with dependent children. Rather than follow in the footsteps of Lyndon Johnson, he praised the nobility of Johnson's cause but then pointed out the failures of the "War on Poverty" effort.
"He proclaimed that large government bureaucracies and government was going to solve the problem," McCain said of Johnson. "Government didn't." When asked if he could promise that he would not cut the discretionary federal programs that help the impoverished communities he visited, McCain answered carefully. "I can't guarantee that every single program will be kept in place," he said. "But I can guarantee that every program that's viable and that's achieving the purpose for which it is intended will be kept in place."
The traditional way to woo impoverished voters is to offer more government support, but with the exception of proposals like the gas tax holiday, that was not McCain's approach. And people in the crowds sometimes seemed to notice. Some of those in attendance at his events openly expressed dissatisfaction with his policies, which includes significant tax cuts for wealthier Americans. He regularly received questions, for instance, about whether he would seek out more federal money for schools. McCain said he does support an increase in federal spending on special education.
"It's going to take a tax increase to give every child a quality education," said Rose Sanders, an activist in Selma, Ala., after McCain spoke there. In Inez, Ky., a registered Democrat named Debbie Blevias said she worried that McCain "is going to be for the richer people." When asked what she wanted to hear from Washington politicians, she said, "They could help send money into these rural areas."
But McCain's week-long tour was less focused on winning votes in Alabama and Kentucky, two states that he is expected to carry in a general election, than broadcasting a national message. The McCain campaign is now focused squarely on exploiting the ongoing Democratic infighting between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by building the McCain brand. "Every day they run a primary campaign, we run a general election campaign," explained Mark McKinnon, McCain's senior media adviser, as the campaign bus rolled through Kentucky. "And every day we run a general election campaign is a good day for us."
That brand, as the tour made clear, is intended to bring home the message that McCain, who spends much of his time these days trying to raise money at hotel ballroom fund raisers, understands the concerns and plight of all Americans. "As President of the United States, I am not going to leave anybody behind," he said Thursday at a town hall in New Orleans, echoing the "No Child Left Behind" slogan of President Bush.
McCain has said his major economic emphasis will focus on stimulating the economy by continuing President Bush's tax cuts, slashing the corporate tax rate and reducing wasteful federal spending, which he said would be accomplished by banning congressional earmarks and reviewing efficiency of the cabinet-level agencies. He says he expects these policies, including a continuation of a lower capital gains tax rate, to help the economy grow, benefiting those at the bottom of the ladder as much as those higher up.
By contrast, both Democratic candidates have focused more of their policy prescriptions on measures to provide direct government support for the poor, including tax credits targeted for low-income workers, new spending on early childhood education, a higher minimum wage, and health insurance options available to all Americans. Obama and Clinton say they would pay for these plans by allowing President Bush's tax cuts to expire, and possibly raising the Capital Gains tax, moves that would have a greater impact on the wealthy than the poor.
In the coming days, McCain says he plans to deliver an address discussing some of the policy lessons of his trip through struggling parts of the country. He said he was impressed with the importance of Community Development Block Grants, which provide federal funds for infrastructure work. He also said he had seen the importance of allowing local communities to play a major role in deciding how to spend federal aid. He has also promised to return to many of the communities he visited.
The return could not come too soon for Mary Croom-Fontenot, an activist in New Orleans who works with local churches to help organize the post-Katrina rebuilding. "Twenty minutes out on this lawn in the heat does not suffice," she said, after McCain held a press availability in the Lower Ninth Ward on Thursday. Like some others, she said she thought McCain's visit to the neighborhood, which included two military trucks for carrying photographers to capture McCain as he walked through, was overly focused on the national media, not the actual community. "What we saw was a designated seating area for the traveling press," she said, adding that there were no seats initially set aside for members of the community.