Latest McCain Economic Proposal Seen As Incoherent

05/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 2007, Sen. John McCain blamed out-of-control GOP spending for the Democrats' takeover of the House of Representatives. "We came to power in 1994 to change government, and government changed us," he said at the time. Now you can count McCain among the transformed -- but not in any consistent manner.

While proposing tax cuts twice as deep as those signed by President Bush, not only has McCain failed to explain how he'll pay for them, he's now also proposing new spending: a Republican heresy he surely would have blasted only a year ago, and which experts say would lead to an even bigger deficit.

The Christian Science Monitor concluded in April that McCainomics consists of "traditional GOP tax-cutting, with a dash of populism sprinkled on top." This week's sprinkle came in the form of a plan for increased job training for workers hit hard by the economic downturn -- precisely the same idea the RNC blasted Democrats for talking about three weeks ago:

"Obama and Clinton's economic plans are what you expect from two senators who think that big government is the solution for just about every problem. Obama and Clinton's plans for more taxes, spending and regulations will lead to fewer homeowners and jobs."

Compare that to an excerpt from McCain's economic speech in Chicago on Monday:

"We have to help displaced workers at every turn on a tough road, so that they are not just spectators on the opportunities of others. And I have made that commitment with reforms to expand and improve federal aid to American workers in need."

Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the conservative Cato Institute, told The Huffington Post that McCain has thus far failed to give the public "straight talk" on the connection between his spending agenda and tax cutting plan. "Should McCain be consistent and match his tax cuts with spending cuts? Absolutely. We already have a $400 billion deficit, and we're against expanding that," Edwards said.

How to describe this contradiction, not only with his party, but with his own Senate record of voting against job training assistance for the past six years? "I'm sure its something his political advisers suggested he do," Edwards said. "I doubt it's an idea his economic advisers are particularly in favor of. But that's just something economic advisers have to put up with on a presidential campaign. ... For years, academic economic studies have suggested that [job training programs] are of dubious value, anyway."

Liberal economists who support the idea of job training assistance also wonder how McCain can achieve that objective, given McCain's tax cut priorities. Len Burman, a senior fellow and tax policy analyst with the the Urban Institute, called McCain's Monday speech "interesting," but cautioned: "His proposed tax cuts will either make it very difficult for the government to help vulnerable populations -- including many more than those displaced by trade -- or add to our ballooning budget deficits."

For his part, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds disputed the notion that any new job training program would necessarily have to increase the deficit, and suggested that trimming "wasteful spending in Washingon" could pay for new programs. He also said McCain's new attention to the issue derives not from political expediency, but from the opportunity that running for president has afforded him to help workers in a way that accords with his "own ideas" about the economy.

Whether or not McCain's latest dash of populism is the result of political positioning, the validity his "own ideas" about the economy remains an open question. "I don't think -- and McCain has as much as admitted this -- he [has] a very strong basis in economic theory or understanding," Edwards said. Meanwhile, Burman noted that if McCain were to get his way and enlarge the deficit to expand job training assistance, "that would contribute to our trade deficit over time, meaning that more workers will be displaced by trade -- and fewer will benefit from the export-related jobs that the Senator trumpets."

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