John McCain plans to come off the campaign trail in late March after wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, his advisers say, so he can put together detailed policy proposals on health care and other subjects that would be rolled out later in the spring.
In a wide-ranging interview, McCain's de facto policy director sketched out the campaign's plans for moving from the primary to the general election. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who serves as McCain's chief economic adviser, also offered an explanation for McCain's recent admission that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."
McCain may have been making a self-deprecating joke, but the root of the statement probably lies in his self-image as an expert on national security, and his confidence in not having to similarly master every subject, Holtz-Eakin contended.
"I think he does economics well.... He is not the most spell-binding economic orator, if there is such a thing," he said.
Holtz-Eakin also drew sharp distinctions between McCain and President Bush -- especially between McCain and free-spending Republicans in Congress, who Holtz-Eakin said had damaged the public's trust in government -- and suggested that the record of the Republicans ruling Congress from 2001 to 2007 showed the pitfalls of one-party government. McCain is fully capable of working with a Democratic Congress as president, said Holtz-Eakin, an economist who served as director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2003 to 2005.
The policy director dismissed as "not an issue" claims that federal election rules could prevent McCain from exceeding strict campaign spending limits that apply until September. Even if the dispute resulted in litigation, McCain could use the legal process to run out the clock on the case until after Election Day, and the Federal Election Commission is unlikely to take action in that time because it lacks a quorum, he said.
Holtz-Eakin, a senior policy adviser who says he is the de facto policy director, also confirmed that McCain is prepared to abandon public campaign funding limits in the general election if his Democratic opponent does the same. He referred to Sen. Barack Obama as "the most gifted performer in American politics" but derided Obama's economic proposals as ill-conceived throwbacks to failed liberal ideas of the 1970s.
"A lot of his proposals reek of yesterday," Holtz-Eakin said.
He said that McCain would soon retreat temporarily from the campaign trail to craft detailed plans for his presidency, concentrating on a strategic vision for "where America ought to go."
Holtz-Eakin also said McCain's economic proposals and style are sharply different from the current president's: "He's nothing like Bush. It would be hard to characterize the last seven years as [McCain] marching in lockstep with President Bush," and unlike the president, who he said surprised voters with a narrowly-drawn Social Security plan that did not match the rhetoric of Bush's 2004 campaign, McCain would advance a "comprehensive vision for the future of America."
Holtz-Eakin suggested that spending restraint and smaller government would remain hallmarks of the campaign, and Republicans around the country were pleased that McCain was leaving behind the GOP's recent legacy of profligacy.
"There are Republicans in jail, former members of Congress, and that is over the spending process, the earmarks, the corruption this has bred," he said.
Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.