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Pandering to the Middle Class

The four flaws in John McCain's four-point economic plan

Jan 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 18 • By DAVID FRUM
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Double messages can be heard from McCain on the balanced-budget issue too. He scourges George W. Bush for offering an irresponsibly big tax cut: Bush's cut is so big, McCain charges, that it could actually push the federal budget back into deficit. But McCain's bona fides as a budget-balancer look increasingly doubtful. As a senator from libertarian Arizona, McCain had a good record as a spending hawk. But as he has moved into the national arena, he has begun -- as conservatives mockingly put it -- to "grow." Here for example is McCain thinking aloud about health care with a worshipful Joe Klein in the New Yorker: "I think we're just going to have to do it on a piecemeal basis. Start with health care for children, and prescription drugs for people who can't afford them now." Two vast new entitlement programs are a start towards "it." One has to wonder what else is included in this ominous little pronoun.

On the revenue side of the budget, McCain claims to have identified billions of dollars of corporate loopholes to be closed. Yet, he is ready to fling open a large loophole all his own: an exemption from income tax on the first $ 56,000 of pay for military personnel on overseas duty. That should have them clinking their glasses at NATO HQ in Brussels! But for a politician who denounces pandering, you have to wonder: What is the logic here? McCain rightly draws attention to the Clinton administration's neglect of the military. He wants to inspire Americans to appreciate the dangers braved by their soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Fair enough. But how does it make things better to say that men who live underwater on submarines for six months of the year have to pay an income tax while Marine guards at the Paris embassy do not? McCain justifies this special favor by complaining that it is unfair that civilians who live abroad get a tax exemption while military personnel don't. But of course those civilians must pay taxes to their host governments while military personnel don't. If McCain has his way, troops stationed abroad would pay no taxes at all. This is pandering at its most Goretesque.

The biggest question of all is raised by the fourth and last part of McCain's plan: his income tax cut. John McCain owes his spectacular political success of the last few months to the perception that he is the most un-Clinton-like candidate running. He served in Vietnam, he's brave, he's forthright, he's unmanipulative. That makes it all the more disturbing that his tax rhetoric seems to have been photocopied from Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. Clinton defeated Paul Tsongas in 1992 by promising a tax cut for the "forgotten" middle class. And now here's McCain repeating the same trick. Nobody called this courageous then. How did it become a brave move in the interval?

McCain is making a blatant appeal to the deepest but also wrongest conviction of middle-class Americans: that they are being singled out for government maltreatment while the rich and the poor are cosseted and pampered. When McCain focuses his tax cut on families earning between $ 40,000 and $ 70,000 -- simultaneously ignoring those earning less (who don't vote in Republican primaries) and those earning more (how many of them are there anyway?) -- he is tailoring his cut not to those with the strongest claim, but to those with the greatest clout. It's Steve Forbes, in pushing his flat tax, and George W. Bush, in showing concern for the high marginal rates faced by the poor as they quit welfare for work, who are taking political risks for their economic convictions. John McCain, by contrast, is buying the maximum number of votes at the smallest possible cost.

It used to be said of Johnny Carson that he was better than his material. John McCain is widely seen as better than his career. Few even of McCain's most ardent supporters (in the party, anyway, if not the press) have a good word to say for his anti-tobacco crusade and his campaign-finance reform scheme. Now he has delivered an economic plan that is very nearly as bad. It makes you wonder whether the McCain campaign has not at long last found its true slogan: VOTE FOR McCAIN -- DESPITE EVERYTHING.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of How We Got Here: The '70s (Basic Books).