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Memories of the McCain That Was

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Too bad there's no time-traveling on Election Day. The more moderate John McCain of eight years ago would make a very attractive candidate, and Barack Obama eight years from now could offer an impressive track record.

Of course, we can time-travel in our heads. And that ability accounts for polls showing a tight race in a year when the Democrat should be surfing double-digit margins.

We know what McCain was like in 2000, when he ran for president with a fresh maverick message. There was no Obama eight years ago -- or even four years ago -- at least on the national stage. The lack of ballast makes his messianic rallies, now spanning the continents, a bit creepy. Where did he come from?

The miracle of McCain's poll numbers is that they are so high at a time when economic meltdown has become the top anxiety, and he has little to say about it. In terms of policy, he's actually moving away from the light. The McCain of 2000, who opposed Bush tax cuts for being tilted to the rich, has transformed himself into a classic moneybags Republican. He now vows to preserve the Bush tax cuts and cut the corporate tax.

It's pointless to wave the charts showing that rich people pay most of the income taxes. That's how it should be, since the tax is supposed to be progressive -- and it doesn't include the payroll and other regressive taxes that the non-rich shell out. The main problem with our taxes is that we're not collecting enough of them to cover government costs, hence the galloping budget deficits.

McCain has a good record on the spending side, but the government must still pay whatever bills come due. If it doesn't do this with tax revenues, it does it with borrowing, which is a tax on the next generation.

The McCain of 2000 would not have put the words "Social Security" and "disgrace" within an hour of each other. The disgrace, he said in a recent speech, was "paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today."

That happens to be the way Social Security works, and contrary to its critics, the system is in pretty good shape. We may have to fiddle with contributions or benefits in the future, but that need not be a big deal. Baby boomers had both their payroll taxes hiked and retirement ages delayed, and no one's burning tires in the streets. (Medicare is something else ...)

Occasionally, McCain 2008 is more progressive on taxes than Obama 2008. McCain would repeal the 54-cent-a-gallon tax on imported sugar-based ethanol. (Most of it comes from Brazil.) Obama supports the tariff, and a cornucopia of other corporate subsidies for the domestic corn-based ethanol industry, which so generously fills his coffers.

Corn ethanol is a very mixed bag. It plays a large role in rising food prices. And it is less energy-efficient than the kind made with sugar cane.

McCain positions like this one -- especially gutsy when advanced in corn-producing states -- keep the spark going for moderates through the dark hours. And again, we have our memories.

Jonathan Chait writes in The New Republic that "the upside to a candidate who changes his philosophical orientation as often as McCain is that he could always switch back." That possibility, combined with McCain's respect for bipartisanship, is why this campaign doesn't have "that death-and-life quality" acutely felt when the candidate was George W. Bush. That's why, as Chait well puts it, "a lot of liberals (still) kind of like John McCain."

And that's why the polls are a lot closer than they ought to be.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

See Other Political Commentary.

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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