Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Fresh evidence of the McCain recalibration

As part of our continuing series on John McCain’s politically calculated conversion to Bush Republican orthodoxy, consider his interview the other day on Bloomberg Television.

Political commentator Al Hunt brought up the issue of Iraq, and asked the alleged maverick whether, in this era of severe budget deficits, he would support raising taxes on some wealthy Americans in order to help pay for this war, which is now costing America (or, more specifically, our children and their children) roughly $2 billion a week. Here’s how McCain replied:

“I’m not sure what the point would be. I would ask them to make other sacrifices, but I’m not sure I would want to raise their taxes just because we’re in a war.”

I'm not sure I would want to raise their taxes just because we’re in a war….There it is: the Bush orthodoxy in action, the argument that we can fight a major war and still have a free lunch at home – a concept that is unique in American history. Taxes were hiked during the Vietnam war, during the Korean war…but let’s go farther back:

Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, raised taxes on the wealthy in order to finance his war; he did this, in part, by introducing the tax on inherited wealth (the same tax that Bush and his allies have long been trying to shelve). Lincoln also signed the first bill introducing the income tax, responding (in the words of author Steven Weisman) to a “widespread demand in the North for sacrifice, especially from the wealthy.”

The inheritance tax expired after the war, only to be brought back four decades later by Republican president William McKinley, who needed it to help pay for the brief Spanish-American war. And the top rate of the income tax was raised precipitously by Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1917, to help pay America’s 19-month tab for World War I; as Wilson put it, “The industry of this generation should pay the bills of this generation.”

And a quarter-century after that, Franklin D. Roosevelt raised the top rate even higher. In a State of the Union speech, delivered as war clouds loomed, he said: “I have called for personal sacrifice. I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes….I shall recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program to be paid for from (more) taxation than we are paying today. No person should try, or be allowed, to get rich out of this program; and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes.”

But McCain knows that if he was to quote FDR, and suggest that the amount of sacrifice in wartime should be tied to one’s “ability to pay” – in other words, if he was to behave as an actual maverick – he would be toast in the 2008 Republican primaries. If he was to suggest that rich Americans should actually pony up to help pay more for the war that he so vocally defends, just as rich Americans have done in the past, he would quickly lose the support of all those well-heeled Bush campaign donors whom he has been assiduously courting.

Better to let them keep their money, politically speaking. Indeed, they have gotten even richer during the Bush wartime era. In a report released the other day by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, households in the top one percent of earnings have fared best from the Bush tax cuts. Their effective individual tax rates dropped from 24.2 percent in 2000 to 19.6 percent in 2004 – roughly twice the rate cut that went to middle-income families.

There once was a time when McCain was known as a budget-balancing conservative. During the 2000 GOP primary season, when he was competing against Bush for the nomination, he repeatedly contended that Bush’s massive tax cut plan was too big and too risky for the economy; indeed, he countered with a more modest tax cut plan of his own, one that would have directed most of the savings to families with modest incomes. And in 2001, on the Senate floor, he even voted against the first wave of Bush tax cuts.

But many rich GOP donors and Bush loyalists have very long memories; in their eyes, McCain’s past behavior is proof that the man can’t be trusted. Hence his overriding desire to curry their favor during this crucial pre-primary phase. Hence his declaration to Al Hunt that the notion of taxing the rich to pay for a costly war is some kind of alien concept (in his words, “I’m not sure that that’s connected”). Hence his acceptance of the Bush Republican proposition that it is preferable to shift the financial burden for the war on terror to those who today are too young to be taxpayers, and to those not yet born.

It was Woodrow Wilson, 90 years ago, who said of his generation of Americans that “the war must be paid for and it is they who must pay for it, and if the burden is justly distributed…they will carry it cheerfully and with a sort of solemn pride.” But clearly such words are of no use to McCain. In his wooing of the GOP establishment, invoking historical precedents will get him nowhere. His first priority right now is simply to get with the program.