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In candidates, two approaches to Wall Street

The crisis on Wall Street will leave the next president facing tough choices. Neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. John McCain has offered a detailed plan, but their histories offer a clear idea.
/ Source: The New York Times

The crisis on Wall Street will leave the next president facing tough choices about how best to regulate the financial system, and although neither Senator Barack Obama nor Senator John McCain has yet offered a detailed plan, their records and the principles they have set out so far suggest they could come at the issue in very different ways.

On the campaign trail on Monday, Mr. McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, struck a populist tone. Speaking in Florida, he said that the economy’s underlying fundamentals remained strong but were being threatened “because of the greed by some based in Wall Street and we have got to fix it.”

But his record on the issue, and the views of those he has always cited as his most influential advisers, suggest that he has never departed in any major way from his party’s embrace of deregulation and relying more on market forces than on the government to exert discipline.

While Mr. McCain has cited the need for additional oversight when it comes to specific situations, like the mortgage problems behind the current shocks on Wall Street, he has consistently characterized himself as fundamentally a deregulator and he has no history prior to the presidential campaign of advocating steps to tighten standards on investment firms.

He has often taken his lead on financial issues from two outspoken advocates of free market approaches, former Senator Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman. Individuals associated with Merrill Lynch, which sold itself to Bank of America in the market upheaval of the past weekend, have given his presidential campaign nearly $300,000, making them Mr. McCain’s largest contributor, collectively.

Mr. Obama sought Monday to attribute the financial upheaval to lax regulation during the Bush years, and in turn to link Mr. McCain to that approach.

“I certainly don’t fault Senator McCain for these problems, but I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to,” Mr. Obama told several hundred people who gathered for an outdoor rally in Grand Junction, Colo.

Mr. Obama set out his general approach to financial regulation in March, calling for regulating investment banks, mortgage brokers and hedge funds much as commercial banks are. And he would streamline the overlapping regulatory agencies and create a commission to monitor threats to the financial system and report to the White House and Congress.

On Wall Street’s Republican-friendly turf, Mr. Obama has outraised Mr. McCain. He has received $9.9 million from individuals associated with the securities and investment industry, $3 million more than Mr. McCain, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. His advisers include Wall Street heavyweights, including Robert E. Rubin, the former treasury secretary who is now a senior adviser at Citigroup, another firm being buffeted by the financial crisis.

If many voters are fuzzy on the events that over the weekend forced Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. into bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch & Company to be swallowed by the Bank of America Corporation, the continuing chaos among the most venerable names in American finance — coming on top of the recent government seizure of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the demise of the Bear Stearns Companies — has stoked their anxiety for the economy, the foremost issue on voters’ minds.

So it was that first Mr. Obama and then Mr. McCain rushed out their statements on Monday morning before most Americans had reached their workplaces.

To the extent that travails on Wall Street and Main Street have both corporations and homeowners looking to Washington for a hand, that helps Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats who see government as a force for good and business regulation as essential. Yet Mr. McCain has sold himself to many voters as an agent for change, despite his party’s unpopularity after years of dominating in Washington, and despite his own antiregulation stances of past years.

Mr. McCain was quick on Monday to issue a statement calling for “major reform” to “replace the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street.” Later his campaign unveiled a television advertisement called “Crisis,” that began: “Our economy in crisis. Only proven reformers John McCain and Sarah Palin can fix it. Tougher rules on Wall Street to protect your life savings.”

Mr. McCain’s reaction suggests how the pendulum has swung to cast government regulation in a more favorable political light as the economy has suffered additional blows and how he is scrambling to adjust. While he has few footprints on economic issues in more than a quarter century in Congress, Mr. McCain has always been in his party’s mainstream on the issue.

In early 1995, after Republicans had taken control of Congress, Mr. McCain promoted a moratorium on federal regulations of all kinds. He was quoted as saying that excessive regulations were “destroying the American family, the American dream” and voters “want these regulations stopped.” The moratorium measure was unsuccessful.

“I’m always for less regulation,” he told The Wall Street Journal last March, “but I am aware of the view that there is a need for government oversight” in situations like the subprime lending crisis, the problem that has cascaded through Wall Street this year. He concluded, “but I am fundamentally a deregulator.”

Later that month, he gave a speech on the housing crisis in which he called for less regulation, saying, “Our financial market approach should include encouraging increased capital in financial institutions by removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital.”

Yet Mr. McCain has at times in the presidential campaign exhibited a less ideological streak. As he did on Monday, he from time to time speaks in populist tones about big corporations and financial institutions and presents himself as a Theodore Roosevelt-style reformer. He supported the Bush administration’s decision to seize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants, and he has backed as unavoidable the promise of taxpayer money to help contain the financial crisis.

Other than Mr. Gramm, who as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee before his leaving Congress in 2002 worked to block efforts to tighten financial regulation, Mr. McCain’s closest adviser on matters of Wall Street is John Thain, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, who has raised about $500,000 for Mr. McCain. Unlike Mr. Gramm, Mr. Thain has a reputation as a pragmatic, nonideological, moderate Republican. That the men are Mr. McCain’s touchstones is typical of his small and eclectic mix of advisers, making it hard to generalize about how Mr. McCain would act as president.

A prominent McCain supporter, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, signaled how Mr. McCain would try to make his antiregulation record fit the proregulation times that the next president will inherit. Mr. Pawlenty suggested in an interview on Fox News that, given the danger that “any future administration” would go too far, Mr. McCain would be the safer bet to protect against “excessive government intervention or excessive government regulation.”

Mr. Obama also does not have much of a record on financial regulation. As a first-term senator, he has not been around for the major debates of recent years, and his eight years in the Illinois Senate afforded little opportunity to weigh in on the issues.

In March 2007, however, he warned of the coming housing crisis, and a year later in a speech in Manhattan he outlined six principles for overhauling financial regulation.

On Monday, he said the nation was facing “the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression,” and attributed it on the hands-off policies of the Republican White House that, he says, Mr. McCain would continue. Seeking to showcase Mr. Obama’s concerns, his campaign said Mr. Obama led a conference call on the crisis early Monday that included Paul A. Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve; Mr. Rubin; and his successor as treasury secretary, Lawrence H. Summers.

Later, citing Mr. McCain’s remarks about the economy’s strong fundamentals, he told a Colorado crowd that Mr. McCain “doesn’t get what’s happening between the mountain in Sedona where he lives and the corridors of power where he works.”

One reason for both men’s sketchy records on financial issues is that neither has been a member of the Senate Banking Committee, which has oversight of the industry and its regulators. Under both parties’ leadership, the committee often has been a graveyard for proposals opposed by lobbyists for financial institutions, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which last week were forced into government conservatorships.

Industry lobbyists’ success in killing such regulations meant senators outside the banking panel did not have to take a stand on them.

Reporting was contributed by Kitty Bennett, Michael Luo, Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny.

This article, "In Candidates, 2 Approaches to Wall Street," first appeared in the New York Times.