Mr. Freeze

MR. FREEZE…. I’d like to think this might draw some additional attention in the aftermath of last night’s debate, but there was an exchange that deserves a closer look.

Jim Lehrer noted that the cost of the response to the financial crisis is still undetermined, but it’s likely to be enormous. He pressed McCain on how it would affect his presidency. McCain responded, “How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs.” Asked if he was really proposing a spending freeze, McCain added, “I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.”

Now, as far as I can tell, a spending freeze has never been part of McCain’s policy agenda. In all likelihood, he came up with it on the spot and will never repeat this again.

But he nevertheless made this pronouncement in front of the whole country. And a spending freeze of this magnitude goes well beyond getting rid of a few earmarks. Mark Schmitt explained:

A spending freeze … is a very specific thing — some programs will be in the freeze, some out. In a recession, programs that would normally cost more automatically — like Food Stamps or Unemployment Insurance — will be unable to respond.

Over the next few weeks, Obama (as well as the press, if it’s not too much to ask) should pound relentlessly on the spending freeze: What’s frozen, and what’s “several other vital issues”? In a recession, are Food Stamps frozen? Student loans? Unemployment benefits? Pell Grants? S-CHIP? Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP)? The list is long, and different states and constituencies naturally have their own programs that they would like to know whether McCain would freeze them or not.

And wherever McCain’s answer is yes, that program would be part of the freeze, numbers can usually be put to it quickly. For example, freezing LIHEAP would leave X million seniors without heat this winter. Freezing Pell Grants would mean X million students couldn’t go to college.

At the end, McCain will be in one of two boxes: Either he’s a guy who is willing to slash every domestic program, leave seniors in the dark and kids blocked from college, while dumping hundreds of billions of dollars into Wall Street and Baghdad, plus his tax cuts. Or his “spending freeze” is just another vacuous gimmick.

It’s probably considered passe for the media to care about a policy pronouncement made during a debate, but this is a fairly big deal — which, in theory, could be devastating to McCain. As Yglesias noted, his proposed spending freeze would, in real terms, mean “less money for your local police department. Less money for the FBI. Less money for Head Start. Less money for Pell Grants. Less money for infrastructure. Less money for everything except failed banks and endless wars.”

If McCain really believes this is a wise approach to the budget, voters ought to know about it.