Presidential candidate Senator John McCain took fielded some tough questions from Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher in the opening interview at the D: All Things Digital conference. One of the more interesting exchanges during the interview, beyond McCain's positions on various campaign issues, was his call for the best and brightest, including Silicon Valley executives, to serve in government, a kind of league of extraordinary gentleman and women harkening back to the administration of John F. Kennedy.
I know where the smart people in America are," McCain said, and proclaimed that most successful people are patriotic.
He would hire Cisco CEO John Chambers, who is also working on McCain's campaign and was sitting in the audience. Chambers later told me that he is locked up by Cisco's board for the next 3 to 5 years, and McCain knows that. Of course, that doesn't rule out Chambers from taking on role in government.
McCain also said he would hire FedEx founder Fred Smith for defense acquisitions, which he called the "most screwed up organization," purchasing small boats for $400 million that should cost $160 million. He also mentioned Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who was in attendance. Swisher asked if he wanted to hire the entire audience and nominated Ballmer for Secretary of State. McCain came back with Ambassador to China.
McCain wasn't totally prepped for questions about broadband, telecommunications and Net Neutrality. He described himself as the greatest free trader and deregulator you will ever see in an interview to Mossberg and Swisher.
"Let's make the technology solve most of the problems. I have yet to see consolidation that has resulted in restraint of trade," McCain said regarding Net Neutrality. The telcos and cellcos who own the pipes should be able to profit by charging for increased broadband and accessibility, he said.
Mossberg asked why if you buy a cell phone from one company it won't necessarily work on another network. McCain said that the consolidation among cell carriers is worrisome, but he is not prepared to wind through Congress with legislation.
Mossberg challenged McCain that the U.S. is always behind other parts of the world in digital cellular. McCain responded that he would take the U.S. digital cellular technology versus Korea's. "We have the best minds in the world in the U.S. I have great confidence in every spectrum of information technology [in the U.S.]," McCain said. Korea outpaces the U.S. in broadband services and the growth in India and China, for example, in information technology, is challenging the U.S. in the flatter world.
I later asked McCain about his notion that the smartest people reside in the U.S. He mentioned a visit to Google he made recently, and that people from China, India, Pakistan and other countries work at the search engine giant and at other U.S companies.
People want to come to the U.S. to get and education and work U.S. to work in high tech industries, but many are going back to their homelands. Since 9/11 the U.S. has held back on H-1B visas for foreign student and workers. At the same time, the number of engineering and computer science students is the U.S. is declining, and accelerating in countries outside the U.S. McCain suggested one way to improve the imbalance is for science and engineering students in the U.S. to be offered a free rides (I presume scholarships) to college. How those free rides get funded is uncertain.
McCain's view that the U.S. is smarter and better than other countries in the technology arena might be political rhetoric, but it ignores the fact that the U.S. is falling behind in broadband and in churning out engineers and computer scientists compared to other parts of the world.
On copyright issues, McCain said the issue must be carefully thought through and leadership is needed from the White House. "Most in Congress don't understand the issue" he said, "and rely on some federal bureaucracy that looks at it." He advocated finding smart people--the best and brightest as in the John F. Kennedy era, not the biggest campaign contributors or political favorites--to help the U.S. become more competitive, credible and to solve problems around telecom, copyrights and patents. "Confidence is government is at an all time low--20 percent--which is mostly blood relatives and paid staffers," McCain quipped.
On immigration, McCain advocated passage of the Senate plan to deal with the estimated 12 million illegals living in the U.S. “[The country] expects us to sit down together and address an issue of transcendent national importance,” McCain said. He is also concerned about the Republican party losing the Hispanic vote as President Bush did in his second term.
On the war, McCain staunchly defended the Bush adminstration's decision to invade Iraq, supported the forthcoming troop 'surge,' and said that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn't send enough troops to deal with the situation.
Mossberg challenged McCain on the wisdom of keeping troops in Iraq. McCain said that the U.S. must execute a "classic counter insurgency to control and secure the environment," and said the new strategy is working.
He cited several reasons for the U.S. to stay in Iraq, including the endangered oil supply, the threat of Iran, peril to Israel's future, the Jordanian immigration issue and chaos in the region. "By January 2009 [a new administration], the issue will be resolved," McCain said. "Either we will be on a path to success or the situation will not have improved and will cause us to withdraw."
He called for a "league of democracies" to stand up to Iran, which he termed the greatest threat, with sanctions imposed outside of the U.N., where Russia and China have blocked sanctions on Iran.
McCain also believes that Hillary Clinton is the most likely Democratic candidate, although Senator Barack Obama has "spared something in the America people that is very interesting."
On the energy policy front, McCain believes that climate change is real. "Energy independence has to be the highest priority," he said, citing nuclear power, ethanol and biodiesel fuel as solutions.
McCain closed by asking the gather technology executives to help combat child pornography. "You have to give us the tools to do it," he said.