Ross Douthat is a conservative, albeit of a somewhat heretical temperament, so his assessment of John McCain’s new “economic agenda” is particularly interesting insofar as he thinks the whole thing is, well, pretty poorly thought out and essentially a box-checking exercise.
McCain’s speech reads like an attempt to unify a divided party by offering every faction something to make them happy. For the GOP’s supply-siders and business interests, there are promises to extend the Bush tax cuts and slash corporate rates. For moderate Republicans clinging to seats in Democratic states, there’s a pledge to cut the Alternative Minimum Tax, which hits upper-middle class Blue Staters hardest. For free traders, there’s a shout-out to the Colombian Free Trade Agreement; for flat-tax obsessives, there’s a call for an alternative tax-filing option, featuring just two brackets instead of four or five. For deficit hawks and porkbusters, there’s a promise to veto any bill with earmarks, an attack on corporate welfare, and a call for a one-year freeze in discretionary spending and a top-to-bottom review of every agency’s budget. For entitlement reformers, there’s a call to means-test the prescription drugs benefit. There’s even something for the small band of conservatives (this writer among them) who have been agitating for a distinctively pro-family economic agenda, in the form of a pledge to double the tax exemption for dependents, from $3500 to $7000.
In other words, it’s all pretty much a politically-motivated grab-bag, with the desire to shower tax benefits on voters struggling rather painfully with McCain’s long-time theme of demands for fiscal discipline. McCain does seem to have figured out that it’s not exactly the right moment to pose as Dr. Root Canal (to use the term of abuse supply-siders have traditionally applied to fiscal hawks). But it’s not especially clear that offering something to everyone will work politically, either. As Douthat says:
This is almost certainly a wiser approach than campaigning as the prince of budgetary rectitude and nothing else, but by leaving McCain without a signal theme, it runs the risk that the media will end up deciding which aspects of his program get highlighted, and what narrative he ends up saddled with.
Well, yeah, insofar as one of those “media narratives” could involve getting out the calculator and figuring out that McCain’s tax proposals will once again shower corporations and the wealthy with the bulk of benefits, while dwarfing the negative fiscal consequences of even Bush’s tax plans. And maybe that’s why Ross concludes by suggesting that McCain could wind up vulnerable to claims than on economic issues, he’s “George W. Bush redux.” It might even, you know, be true.