McCain, Grasping for an Edge, Calls for SEC Chairman’s Head

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Groucho Marx Photo: Getty Images

As both candidates struggled to produce a coherent message on the economy this week, John McCain has had a couple more hurdles to overcome than Barack Obama. Not only is he hurt by his party ties to the Republican administration, but he also has a long record of deregulation, which, as his sudden bout of populist rhetoric attests to, isn't a philosophy that voters would find attractive at this time of financial meltdown. So yesterday he came up with a new idea: Hypothetically, if he were president right now, he would fire the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Christopher Cox. It's the type of decisive, easy-to-understand sound bite that voters can grasp without advanced knowledge of our labyrinthine financial system. McCain repeated the assertion in a speech unveiling his financial plan this morning, calling Cox "a good man" but maintaining that he needed to be held accountable. The problem, however, is that it's not even clear that the president can fire the chairman of the SEC — and even if he could, a lot of people aren't enamored with the sentiment anyway.

• The WSJ editorial board says McCain "took his populist riffing up a notch and found his scapegoat for financial panic" in calling for Cox's termination. The "assault on Mr. Cox is both false and deeply unfair. It's also un-Presidential." McCain is giving "easy, misleading answers that will do nothing to help," and he sounds "like a candidate searching for a political foil rather than a genuine solution." [WSJ]

• Howard Kurtz writes that McCain's "call yesterday for the head of the SEC sounds like a decisive step. How many people will hear the media explanation that a president can't dump his chairman over policy differences?" [Media Notes/WP]

• Andrew Stuttaford contends that McCain does have a point, that SEC rule changes have been a mistake. "[P]utting all the blame for the SEC rule change on Chris Cox is also ludicrous, but sometimes the guy in charge has to step up — and step down." [Corner/National Review]

• Stephen Bainbridge, a UCLA law professor, contends that "[t]here’s so much stupidity" in McCain's suggestion that "it’s hard to know where to begin." It shows "McCain at his worst. Populist. Hot tempered. Shooting from the hip." But, McCain is right that he could remove Cox as Chairman of the SEC, just not as one of its commissioners. [Stephen Bainbridge]

• Andrew Leonard agrees that "Cox should be fired," as he's "been a virtual nonentity for the entire extent of the credit crunch." But Cox "has been doing exactly what his party has always wanted him to do," meaning, "Bush did not appoint him commissioner in 2005 to crack down on Wall Street." [How the World Works/Salon]

• Jim Geraghty quibbles with the proposal to fire Cox because "you're effectively promoting that person's lieutenant." Assuming that the "President doesn't have some perfect SEC Chairman/crisis manager in mind," and considering the confirmation process you have to go through, and the butt-covering that would commence, the focus would surely be taken off of fixing the economy. "Maybe Chris Cox ought to go. I'm not sure this is the week to do it." [Campaign Spot/National Review]

• Jake Tapper and Lisa Chinn conclude that while the president can't literally fire the chairman of the SEC, "colloquially" he can, as past presidents "have attempted to exert political pressure to force the resignations of commissioners of these agencies." [Political Punch/ABC News]

• Chuck Todd and friends see McCain's "call for the firing of a guy — Republican SEC Chairman Chris Cox — who doesn’t appear to be the culprit" as evidence that he's "not winning the 3:00 am phone call challenge on the economy." [First Read/MSNBC]

• Steve Benen says that, indeed, "the SEC did allow all kinds of short selling, but that's legal under the federal regulatory system that John McCain — and his advisor, Phil Gramm — helped put in place." How come McCain, in all his years in Congress, hasn't "criticized Cox's oversight of existing trading rules" until yesterday? [Political Animal/Washington Monthly]

• Nick Schultz calls it "odd" that "McCain would attack SEC chairman Christopher Cox ," since he's just the "smart, conservative, free market advocate" the administration needs right now. "There's lots of blame to go around for the mess we're in. Cox doesn't deserve it." [Corner/National Review]

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.