Before my more conservative friends start leaping from buildings over Sen. John McCain’s presidential primary victories, let me try to coax them back in from the ledge. Despite his myriad apostasies (e.g. McCain-Feingold’s free-speech limits, anti-ANWR-oil-drilling votes, a mixed tax-cut record, creeping Kyotoism and cold feet on waterboarding), the Arizona Republican could do for fiscal responsibility what Ronald Reagan did for tax relief.
Thanks to the Gipper, tax reduction is as central to the Republican faith as the Resurrection is to Christianity. True, McCain heretically opposed President Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. However, he now appears penitent and observant. He proposes to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent and slice corporate taxes from 35 percent to 25 percent, among other reforms.
But in terms of limited government, today’s GOP recalls the Roman Catholic Church’s excesses before the Reformation of 1517. For nearly a decade, Republicans have indulged in a spending bacchanal that shredded their moral authority and shocked Republican true believers. Like a latter-day Martin Luther, a President McCain may nail his own “95 Theses” to the U.S. Capitol’s front door and shame Congress, before it spends again.
Cato Institute researcher Michael Tanner cites White House figures to illustrate how Washington’s spending has waned and waxed since 1980. Under President Reagan, overall federal outlays decreased from 22.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product, to 21.2. On President George H.W. Bush’s watch, spending increased to 21.4 percent. During President Bill Clinton’s years, expenditures fell to 18.5. And during President George W. Bush’s tenure, spending boomeranged to 20.7 percent of GDP.
“Reagan had a Democratic House to contend with, so anything he achieved was to the good,” Tanner explains. “The elder President Bush was sort of a non-event. Clinton and a Republican Congress represented the most fiscally conservative period. And this President Bush and a Republican Congress were a disaster.”
McCain largely has refused to be led into temptation. He supported 2001’s $143.4 billion No Child Left Behind Act, but fought 2002’s $180 billion farm bailout, 2003’s $558 billion Medicare drug entitlement and 2005’s $286.4 billion highway bill, which contained 6,371 earmarks worth $24 billion.
“Those were the four biggest budget-busting bills of the Bush presidency,” notes Heritage Foundation fiscal analyst Brian Riedl. “And McCain voted against three of them.”
Wouldn’t it be refreshing for a President McCain, at last, to give America’s farmers the straight talk they so richly deserve?
“My friends,” McCain might declare before some Midwestern barn, “when it rains, you cry for flood relief, and it cascades in. When the skies are cloudless, you scream for drought assistance, and it arrives. When your prices are low, you demand help, and the checks soon follow. Since last January, corn prices have climbed 123 percent. Soybeans are up 176 percent, and spring wheat has risen 274 percent. And yet Washington stands ready to grant your howls for $286 billion in yet another farm-welfare bonanza. Enough already. Please stop farming the government and go till your fields. The party is over. The trough is empty. Goodbye.”
McCain courageously opposed the wasteful, environmentally destructive federal ethanol program — while battling his Republican rivals in Iowa.
“I will open every market in the world to Iowa’s agricultural products. I’m the biggest free-marketer and free-trader that you will ever see,” McCain said at the Dec. 12 Des Moines Register debate. “And I will also eliminate subsidies on ethanol and other agricultural products. They are an impediment to competition. They’re an impediment to free markets. And I believe that subsidies are a mistake.”
McCain has stayed tightfisted on the hustings. According to a Jan. 29 National Taxpayers Union study of presidential candidates’ promises, McCain wants $6.9 billion in new spending. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney favors $19.5 billion in fresh outlays. “Free-market” Romney’s automated phone calls in Florida actually slammed McCain because he “voted against the AARP-backed Medicare prescription-drug program.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee advocates $54.2 billion in government-funded initiatives. Romney’s ideological gymnastics and Huckabee’s folksy profligacy should worry taxpayers.
“You would not have to look hard for reasons to dislike McCain,” says Cato’s Tanner. “But if spending is what you care about, he is far more conservative than either Romney or Huckabee.”
(New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. E-mail him at deroy.murdock(at)gmail.com.)