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McCain Economics: More of What?

By Marie Cocco

WASHINGTON -- Fittingly, and with dreadful predictability, John McCain used April 15 -- tax day -- as the day to release his economic plan. Fittingly, and with dreadful predictability, it offers more of the same.

But more of the same what?

Is it Reaganomics? Not quite. Reaganomics was premised on the magical thinking that cutting taxes, mostly for the best-off Americans, would increase revenue, improve the federal balance sheet and produce economic goodies that would trickle down to Americans from all walks of life. Does the Republican presidential prospect believe in voodoo? Not so much.

Is it Bushonomics? This is the more debilitating version of Reaganomics we have had for the past seven years. It has been more damaging, because neither President Bush nor the Republicans who controlled Congress through most of his tenure gave a whit about cutting spending, which Reagan, from time to time, tried to do. So one of Bush's parting gifts when he leaves the Oval Office is going to be an overhang of debt -- for everything from the frenzied homeland security buildup after 9/11 to the halfhearted recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How to describe McCain's fiscal plan? Well, it sounds an awful lot like Newt Gingrich's Contract With America.

That is, massive tax cuts, estimated by the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute to bleed as much as $7.9 trillion out of federal accounts through 2018. These would be coupled with unspecified federal budget cuts. "It's a mind-boggling number," Len Burman, who analyzed the McCain plan for the center, said in an interview. Offsetting all these tax cuts -- continuation of the existing Bush cuts, which would otherwise expire in 2010, plus more big tax cuts that McCain has put forward -- would require spending reductions so deep that the government would return to the size it was during the Eisenhower administration, the Tax Policy Center estimates. "He can eliminate all domestic discretionary spending and that would pay for all his tax cuts," Burman says.

But McCain doesn't tell us that. He says he would freeze spending for one year that doesn't go to the military or veterans. This would affect everything from counterterrorism to building that fence along the Mexican border that all the presidential candidates are so enthusiastic about. Not to mention popular programs such as student aid and law enforcement. There's also a lot of vague talk about eliminating "failed" programs -- but one candidate's failed program is always some lawmaker's crucial home-state project. And of course, McCain would eliminate "earmarks," which add up to just $15 billion or so in a budget of about $3 trillion.

McCain vows to balance the budget without "smoke and mirrors," but his outline for doing this is awfully foggy. Cutting through this fog brings us straight to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. "There's no way any budget could be balanced without (reconsidering) those programs," McCain's chief economic adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, said in an interview.

Here is where McCain really sounds like he's read the Contract With America. To pay for the gargantuan tax cuts the congressional Republicans wanted to enact in the mid-1990s, they were forced to detail gargantuan cuts in programs such as Medicare and Medicaid -- cuts that President Bill Clinton refused to accept, and from which the public recoiled. That is why Clinton came out the political winner of the struggle.

In the end, Clinton and the Republicans did negotiate cuts in the big health care programs -- but they were nothing on the order of what would have been necessary had the Republican tax cuts been enacted. The federal government began running a surplus in 1998, and did so through 2001 -- when Bush came along with his tax cuts and the balance sheet swung back into deficit again.

The straight-talk candidate's economic plan offers a ticket straight back to the same old story: Tax cuts that go to individuals and businesses, which Congress (especially a Democratic Congress) will in all likelihood balk at offsetting with deep spending cuts, and which will in all likelihood end up obliterating any glimmer of hope for a bipartisan deal on the future of entitlement programs.

Been there, done that. Don't really want to go back to that future.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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