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Barack Obama is characterizing John McCain’s economic crisis response as “sit back and watch.” This is a willful misstatement of what McCain said in his speech on the matter.

Here’s how he began:

I will not play election year politics with the housing crisis. I will evaluate everything in terms of whether it might be harmful or helpful to our effort to deal with the crisis we face now.

O.k. So we know he’s not just going to throw out some off-the-cuff, feel-good plans in order to win votes. But he has some principles from which to work:

I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers. Government assistance to the banking system should be based solely on preventing systemic risk that would endanger the entire financial system and the economy.

He’s not big on government bailouts, whether for big institutions or irresponsible individuals. That seems pretty principled. But McCain is in no way implying he’s against helping those who, by no major fault of their own, have found themselves in trouble. This is what he’s against and what he’s for:

In our effort to help deserving homeowners, no assistance should be given to speculators. Any assistance for borrowers should be focused solely on homeowners, not people who bought houses for speculative purposes, to rent or as second homes. Any assistance must be temporary and must not reward people who were irresponsible at the expense of those who weren’t. I will consider any and all proposals based on their cost and benefits. In this crisis, as in all I may face in the future, I will not allow dogma to override common sense.

You could sum that up as: help the needy, not the greedy. And notice how he says he will consider all proposals. He’s by no means saying we should do nothing or just sit around. He’s saying we should do something, but he’s not going to act rashly.

Does he have a specific plan right now? No. But he’s committed to developing one, not in the throw-something-out-there-immediately way that some politicians do, but in a considered way. Yes, opting not to just throw money around right now means some people will suffer but, ultimately, the most good for the most people will come from a well-considered plan and not a half-cocked one.

But wait, that’s not all. McCain understands the two-fold nature of this issue. In addition to providing well-planned assistance, he’s advocating reforms:

When we commit taxpayer dollars as assistance, it should be accompanied by reforms that ensure that we never face this problem again. Central to those reforms should be transparency and accountability.

Homeowners should be able to understand easily the terms and obligations of a mortgage. In return, they have an obligation to provide truthful financial information and should be subject to penalty if they do not. Lenders who initiate loans should be held accountable for the quality and performance of those loans and strict standards should be required in the lending process. We must have greater transparency in the lending process so that every borrower knows exactly what he is agreeing to and where every lender is required to meet the highest standards of ethical behavior.

Again, he’s not going to stand up there and rattle off the first ideas he and his team have developed and then try to force those ideas down everyone’s throat. What he’s doing is showing he understands what kinds of reforms are needed and the direction in which he’d like to head. He’s starting with a specific goal but is willing to consider multiple courses of action.

So, what does he want to do right now? This is where he’s catching the flack because it sounds like a do-nothing plan. In reality, it’s a proposal to bring together the experts necessary to develop smart, comprehensive action. He’s not relying on conservative ideology, he’s looking for a results-based solution. Here’s what he wants to happen immediately:

[I]t is time to convene a meeting of the nation’s accounting professionals to discuss the current market to market accounting systems. We are witnessing an unprecedented situation as banks and investors try to determine the appropriate value of the assets they are holding and there is widespread concern that this approach is exacerbating the credit crunch.

We should also convene a meeting of the nation’s top mortgage lenders. Working together, they should pledge to provide maximum support and help to their cash-strapped, but credit worthy customers. They should pledge to do everything possible to keep families in their homes and businesses growing.

Sure, those proposals sound awful if you’re going to lose your house today. But what McCain’s speech shows is a man who understands the real processes behind government action. Change is slow and rushing things is how we end up with bad laws and “solutions” which are mere bandaids or do more harm than good.

If you want your presidential candidates to have a long, detailed plan of action right now, I guess you have every reason to criticize McCain. But if you acknowledge that this is a complex matter requiring detailed thought and plenty of debate, then there’s a lot to like in what McCain has said. The full extent and causes of this crisis are still coming to light, so it’s not like there’s been months-and-months to work on a plan. Characterizing McCain as “do nothing” is simply wrong. Just because the Democrats want to immediately leverage the power of the government to hand out billions doesn’t mean their off-the-cuff solution is more worthy of consideration than McCain’s considered approach.