March 05, 2008

NYT on McCain's Tax Flops

Now that John McCain is semi-officially the Republican nominee for president in 2008, more attention is being paid to the important question of how he'd restructure the US tax system. As we pointed out recently, McCain's current position on extending the Bush tax cuts (he wants to) is sharply at odds with his speeches (and, more importantly, his votes) during the Bush administration's tax-cutting spree between 2001 and 2005. In short, he not only voted (sensibly, in our view) against various editions of the Bush tax cuts-- he also explained quite clearly that he thought these cuts were too tilted to the wealthiest Americans and would bust the budget. And he now claims not to be troubled by either of these concerns, despite the fact that both of these concerns remain quite accurate.

In yesterday's New York Times, Elizabeth Bumiller surveys the inconsistencies in McCain's policy positions across a number of issues, and finds that "[H]is most striking turnaround has been on the Bush tax cuts, which he voted against twice but now wants to make permanent." Here's Bumiller's take on McCain's shift:
In May 2001, Mr. McCain was one of only two vote against President Bush’s $1.35 trillion 10-year tax cut. On the Senate floor, Mr. McCain said, “I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief.”
Two years later, Mr. McCain was one of three Republicans to vote against additional Bush tax cuts... because, he said then, the costs of the Iraq war were not yet known. Specifically, he said he was open to the idea of tax cuts in the future, “but not until Congress and the administration have a better understanding of the costs of war and peace.”
Later, he said he also opposed the 2003 tax cut because it, too, disproportionately benefited the rich. “I just thought it was too tilted to the wealthy, and I still do,” Mr. McCain told Stephen Moore, a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, in an interview published on Nov. 26, 2005.
These days, Mr. McCain says at almost every campaign stop that he wants to make those tax cuts permanent rather than have them expire, as the law stipulates, because getting rid of them would have the effect of a tax hike. He rarely mentions that he originally opposed them or that he did so in large part because he thought they were too tilted to the rich — an objection that
conservatives consider heresy.
When pressed, Mr. McCain now says he voted against the tax cuts because they were not accompanied by sufficient spending cuts, an explanation somewhat more palatable to the right. Asked last week on his campaign plane if he thought the tax cuts were too tilted to the rich, Mr. McCain sidestepped the question and replied that he preferred his own tax proposal at the time, which he said was “more tilted towards the middle class.”
We've argued before that the "flip-flop" epithet is often just silly. Consistency is often a foolish standard to impose on lawmakers in an ever-changing world, as our recent foreign policy exploits remind us-- in 2003 it was not all that hard for lawmakers to make what turned out to be the wrong choice on invading Iraq, and by 2005 it was pretty clear that those initial decisions were based on bad information stoked by a trigger-happy administration and a compliant media.

But when McCain was voting against the Bush tax cuts, we didn't need the CIA to help us evaluate them. McCain's earlier criticisms of the Bush tax cuts' fairness were based on the complete (and entirely accurate) information that was available then-- and remains available now-- about who would benefit from Bush's proposed cuts.

Even on an issue as cut-and-dried as this, however, you could make a case for why McCain's contradictory positions on the Bush tax cuts are sensible. McCain could, if he wanted to, explain that he just doesn't value fairness or balanced budgets as much as he used to, and that he now thinks we ought to pare down the size of government by any means necessary. If and when he does this, we can stop calling this a "flip-flop" and start calling it a lightning-quick, politically-aware evolution in his policy positions.

Until he does so, however, this seems like a case in which the "flip-flopper" label might fairly be applied.


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