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McCain's Deficit Attention Disorder

April 16, 2008

Back in 2002, Vice President Cheney famously told Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter." Now just two months after promising to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term, self-described Reagan foot soldier John McCain has decided he agrees.
Before abandoning his balanced budget pledge during his Pittburgh address yesterday, McCain had made it a feature on the campaign trail. For example, during a February 15th rally in La Crosse, Wisconsin, "McCain promised he'd offer a balanced budget by the end of his first term." He told the audience that he could end the red ink by 2012:

"I've got to give you some straight talk: I doubt, given the deficits we're running, that I can propose a balanced budget in the first year. But that's my goal. It has to be our goal, because we're mortgaging these young people's future."

Alas, McCain's life as a deficit hawk was a short and unhappy one.
Even as Mr. Straight Talk was promising a 2012 end date for the budget deficit, his top economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin was reading from a different script, instead targeting the end of a McCain second term in 2017. And he should know. A month later, Holtz-Eakin, an architect of the McCain tax plan, admitted, "It will make deficits expand up front, no question." Just a day before McCain's April 15th economic address, Holtz-Eakin previewed the campaign's new position on balancing the budget:

"I would like the next president not to talk about deficit reduction."

For good reason. During an April 9th appearance at a Westport, Connecticut investment firm, McCain was grilled over his fuzzy math:

"Basically, which is it?" the man asked Mr. McCain. "Straight talk: Do you want to raise taxes, cut entitlement spending, cut defense spending, or have a deficit?"

McCain dutifully cited his idol Ronald Reagan as proivding the answer. Conveniently ignoring the fact that Reagan himself raised taxes three times and bequeathed a $300 billion deficit to his successor, McCain argued:

"That was when Ronald Reagan came to office in 1980. And so what did we do? We didn't raise taxes, and we didn't cut entitlements."

Of course, the McCain tax plan's budget-busting largesse to the wealthiest Americans would make Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush alike blush. As ThinkProgress meticulously detailed in late March, McCain has thrown budgetary caution to the wind:"

Our analysis suggests that the McCain plan shares five key characteristics of Bush policies. First, it is enormously expensive, costing more than $2 trillion over the next decade and essentially doubling the Bush tax cuts. Second, the McCain plan would predominantly benefit the most fortunate taxpayers, offering two new massive tax cuts for corporations and delivering 58 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The Bush tax cuts provide 31 percent of their benefits to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.
Third, the McCain tax plan continues the shift of the tax burden from investment income onto earned income. Fourth, the plan not only fails to address current tax shelter problems in the tax code but in fact will lead to increased sheltering. Fifth, McCain cannot pay for his tax cuts without massive reductions in Social Security, Medicare, or other key programs that benefit the vast majority of Americans.

That assessment came before McCain's widely panned gas-tax holiday proposed on Tuesday.
Appearing on Hardball with Chris Matthews yesterday, John McCain explained his about-face on a first-term balanced budget by pleading, "economic conditions are reversed." (No doubt, President Bush would offer the same excuse for his broken 2004 promise to halve the budget deficit by 2009.) Sadly for John McCain, the only conditions which have changed over the past two months is that the American people started learning the truth about his tax plan.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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