Dateline: 15 February 2006
In 2000 John McCain joked that when he first arrived in New Hampshire his poll rating was two percent and the margin of error was four percent. But by the time of the primary – he had chosen to skip the earlier Iowa caucuses – he was running second in the polls to Iowa winner, George W Bush, and in the actual vote he pulled off a stunning victory.
In 2008 he will start as one of favorites. Only the nationwide profile of Rudi Giuliani stops him being the runaway leader in the polls. Both are mavericks, with enthusiastic backers but also with groups who are extremely hostile. In 2000, I was one of those who was very hostile to McCain. Now, I am not so sure.
In 2000 most people assessed a candidate’s policy on two scales: economic policy and social policy. My concern about McCain was that, he was someone with a staunch conservative record on social issues but was very weak on the economy. This put him on the opposite side of both issues to libertarians such as myself. George W Bush, on the other hand, was advocating tax cuts and social security reform.
Five years on, things look rather different. Bush’s tax cuts, which McCain opposed, have been extremely important. Without them the economic downturn of Clinton’s last year in office would have turned into a full-blown recession. The economic wobble that followed 9/11 would have been much more serious if the President and Congress had not responded with more tax cuts. Despite left wing insistence that tax cuts have caused the budget deficit, the deficit would certainly have been worse without them.
What has caused the deficit is runaway expenditure, and this is the issue on which the President has been hopelessly weak, and Senator McCain has been extremely robust.
It remains extremely important that the Bush tax cuts are made permanent, that is something that needs to be achieved before 2008. If that is done, a powerful focus by the next president on expenditure would be highly appropriate.
Restraining federal expenditure is a mammoth task, and requires permanent vigilance by both Congress and the President. The Congressional leadership took their eye off this ball in late ‘90s, and no President since Reagan has been focussed on the task. (Though this has never stopped Bill Clinton claiming credit for Newt Gingrich’s reforms of the ‘90s, including those he fought to prevent).
Serious budget reform is principally the responsibility of Congress. We know from the ‘80s that Reagan was completely unable to prevent the Democrat Congress from spending massively, and running up huge deficits. We also know from the ‘90s that Congress can take control of the process without the assistance of the President, and even in the teeth of his opposition. But we also know that if both the President and Congress are determined to behave incontinently the result is disaster.
It is just possible that a President McCain, if he could secure the co-operation of Congress, could bring matters in hand.
Citizens Against Government Waste (www.cagw.org) has identified 600 projects in the budget for fiscal year 2006 which could produce savings of over $230 billion per year. This is not, quite, enough to eliminate the deficit, but postponing by a single year the Bush prescription drugs plan would enable Congress to adopt a balanced budget and introduce further tax cuts.
Anyone want to give it a try?
Copyright © Quentin Langley 15 February 2006