One of the Senate's most progressive members ripped John McCain on Tuesday for offering a phony populist self-portrayal in the wake of the current crisis in the financial markets. In the process, Sherrod Brown of Ohio raised the Republican nominee's involvement in the Keating Five scandal as evidence that voters couldn't trust McCain's record on both the economy and ethics.
"It is not so much his economic proposals but his economic record," Brown said of McCain. "His main adviser is Phil Gramm -- he was his mentor in the Senate -- and you just tie it all together. Of course John McCain supported the oil industry, he has oil lobbyists working for him. Of course John McCain supported these trade agreements, he has got Wall Street people working for him... It is all wrapped up together. John McCain is a creature of these interest groups in Washington. He is no maverick and, from the Keating Five on, his ethics have been questionable. He's not a maverick and Barack has got to just keep hammering on that."
In referencing McCain's involvement in that 1980's Savings and Loans controversy, Brown has gone where the Democratic nominee himself has only tread subtly. During his speech on Tuesday, Obama drew parallels between that industry collapse and the current stumbles of the housing and financial sectors.
"Instead of sensible reform that rewarded success and freed the creative forces of the market, too often we've excused an ethic of greed, corner-cutting and inside dealing that threatens the long-term stability of our economic system," he said. "It happened in the 1980s, when we loosened restrictions on Savings and Loans and appointed regulators who ignored even these weaker rules. Too many S&Ls took advantage of the lax rules set by Washington to gamble that they could make big money in speculative real estate."
Back in 1989, McCain, along with four other Senators, was accused of improperly aiding Charles Keating, chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, in efforts to hamper regulators from intruding on the industry's risky investment practices. McCain, who had received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from Keating, was ultimately rebuked for "poor judgment" but not for violating the law. He has claimed an ethical revival since then, pushing campaign finance reform as an example of a mistake learned.
For the most part, Democrats have shied away from this portion of McCain's biography. Back in May, however, as Obama faced withering criticism for his associations with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and, to a lesser extent, William Ayers, he declared that Keating, likewise, would be fair game.
Brown's comments on the matter may be the most direct yet from a Senate Democrat. But, it should be noted, they came in the context of hitting McCain for being substantively wrong on economic matters. Declaring this week to be a "turning point in the election," Brown criticized the Republican nominee on everything from his prescription for social security to his choice of vice presidential running mate.
"I think Sarah Palin is not really the issue," said the Ohio Democrat, when asked to respond to Carly Fiorina's claim that the Alaska governor lacked the capacity to run Hewlett Packard. "It is John McCain. I just wonder about John McCain's judgment and about his commitment to the future of this country when he chose someone that was so unqualified to be a heartbeat away."
Calling on Obama to draw sharp contrasts with his opponent - "On every major issue John McCain supports the wealthiest groups in Washington and Barack Obama fights for the middle class. Elections are simple and it's as simple as that" - Brown accused McCain of hiding his record when he called for streamlined oversight of the investment banking and housing industries.
"John McCain is talking a good game today and he sounded like the populist that you would like [Tuesday]," he said. "But you got to look at his record. He supported every step of the way this reckless deregulation that really is the culmination of Bush economic policies."
As evidence, he recalled the efforts of the current President and his aspiring successor in trying to privatize social security several years ago.
"Just imagine if Bush and McCain had had their way and privatized Social Security," said Brown. "People would have seen their private social security accounts just disintegrate the last two days. And imagine what that would mean in rural America, urban America, suburban America and small town America?"