In a new column for National Journal I argue that John McCain's fiscal arithmetic does not add up.
Not long ago John McCain was almost boasting that he knew little about economics. That kind of candor, a distinctive McCain trait, is likable but has its limits. His days of making jokes about his ignorance appear to be over. Worries about the economy began to dominate public opinion even before the current slowdown was properly under way.
Between now and November, those worries will only mount: The faltering economy is likely to get worse before it gets better. McCain is going to need an economic program, and he had better get used to talking about this subject as though it matters.
He obviously understands that -- but his recent statements and interviews suggest that he still has a lot of work to do. McCain is running as an orthodox fiscal conservative, with heavy stress on low taxes and tight control of public spending. He is pro-trade. He has modified, but not dropped, his support for personal retirement accounts alongside Social Security. On health care, he has a bunch of proposals for better cost control, but no plan that would deserve to be called comprehensive reform. And he is for stronger action on global warming: He aims to curb greenhouse gases with a cap-and-trade system that would oblige emitters to buy licenses for the privilege.
Stated that baldly, the platform looks all right. I think that the lack of any grander ambition on health care is a pity on the merits and a political mistake as well, but as for the rest, each element has plenty to recommend it. The problem is that the fiscal conservative core of the program, as it stands, is just not credible. McCain is promising to extend the Bush administration's tax cuts -- and cut some more. He is also promising to reduce and then eliminate the budget deficit. To do both of those things, McCain would need to make correspondingly savage cuts in spending, and he has not come close to saying how.
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