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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Jon Chait Sledgehammers McCain

One of John McCain’s most important political assets is his reputation as the scourge of congressional porkmeisters. It represents a nice “three-fer” for the Arizonan, by (1) reinforcing his “maverick” image as a man unafraid of malefactors in either party; (2) appealing to conservatives who are convinced that runaway federal spending is the Bush-era GOP’s great sin, evidencing the betrayal of “conservative principles;” and (3) enabling him to support tax policies even more irresponsible than Bush’s, on grounds that he will pay for old and new tax bennies with a brave and vicious attack on federal spending.
That’s why I strongly recommend a short but efficient piece by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic that takes a sledgehammer to McCain’s carefully constructed edifice of fiscal responsibility, built almost entirely on the foundation of the GOP nominee’s famous antipathy to congressional appropriations “earmarks.”
First, says Chait, McCain conflates “runaway federal spending” with domestic appropriations that are in fact the least of our fiscal problems:

In fact, the growth of government under Bush is mostly due to higher spending on defense and homeland security, which have grown from 3.6 percent of the economy to 5.6 percent. Domestic discretionary spending (that is, programs other than entitlements) has fallen as a share of GDP, from 3.1 percent to 2.8 percent.

Second, McCain conflates “excessive domestic appropriations” with earmarks, those infamous “special projects” inserted into appropriations bills by self-promoting members of Congress:

McCain is promising to cut taxes by $300 billion per year on top of the Bush tax cuts, which he would make permanent. In addition to this, he promises to balance the budget in his first term. When asked how he could possibly pull this off, McCain has asserted that he could eliminate all earmark spending, saving $100 billion per year.
I don’t find this explanation persuasive. The first point I’d make is that $100 billion is, in fact, less than $300 billion. The second point I’d make is that McCain won’t even cut $100 billion, or anywhere close. By conventional measures, earmarks only account for $18 billion per year. McCain gets his number by employing an unusually broad definition of what constitutes an earmark. McCain’s definition includes things like aid to Israel and housing for members of the military that are not “pork” as the term is understood. When asked if he would eliminate those programs, he replied, “Of course not.”

Third, when pressed on any particular earmarked project, McCain invariably retreats into an attack on the earmarking process, instead of attacking the project as pork, making his claims of vast future savings completely illusory:

The Washington Post recently did a long reported story on the bear DNA project that McCain has made the butt of so many jokes. (“Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable,” scoffs one McCain ad.) The Post found that the project is a tool for measuring the bear population in Glacier National Park and has a sound scientific basis. When contacted by the story’s author, McCain’s campaign gave a familiar reply: “Senator McCain does not question the merits of these projects; it’s the process that he has a problem with.” If McCain won’t even commit to zeroing out his single favorite example of government waste, it’s not clear that he’ll save any money at all.

In other words, that brave pork-fighter and spending tightwad John McCain is actually the worst kind of conventional Washington politician when it comes to fiscal policy, supporting very specific tax cuts that create huge budget deficits, and then railing against “pork” and its congressional purveyors in the abstract, and by meaningless anecdote. In this respect, as in others, he resembles no one as much as George W. Bush.

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