Three times in the past two days, Sen. John McCain has proclaimed that 300 economists have enthusiastically endorsed his "Jobs for America" economic plan. The number, line, and message are highly misleading.
On Wednesday, Politico reported that a handful of those 300 had expressed reservations with McCain's "policy prescriptions." One wasn't even supporting the Arizona Republican for president.
Nevertheless, McCain again touted the support of the economists during a townhall event last night. So the Huffington Post decided to dig in a bit further, sending emails to roughly 150 members of the list. The response, from roughly a fifth of that group, was telling. Many of the economists whom McCain cited were generally supportive of his economic goals. But their support was tempered by strong objections towards specific proposals as well as deeper skepticism to the non-economic components of McCain's candidacy. Many felt compelled to clarify that their show of support for the Arizona Republican's economic proposals shouldn't be misinterpreted as an endorsement of his presidential campaign.
"Yes, I support the Jobs for America policy proposal, especially a simplified tax code, lower restrictions on trade, and energy development," said Michael Connolly, Professor of Economics, University of Miami. "[But] I am worried that continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will tear apart our social fabric and defeat any economic proposal to reduce the deficit and stimulate growth. Guns are crowding out butter."
This past week, the McCain campaign presented the list of the economists as backing a general statement outlining the Senator's economic objectives. But when asked to weigh in on specific proposals -- as opposed to the 403-word executive summary -- many in the group shuddered. Among individual policies, McCain's idea of a gas tax holiday was the one most scoffed at with nary an economist offering a defense.
"It would do nothing but increase the quantity demanded - and it wouldn't increase supply," wrote Dave Garthoff of the University of Akron. "So price would just go back up again until demand and supply approached equilibrium, and everyone would blame the oil companies."
Others, meanwhile, said they were not supportive of McCain's pledge to balance the budget by 2013. "No, I think some flexibility to run deficits and surpluses, although I agree that the deficit is too large," said Glenn MacDonald, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Strategy at Washington University in St. Louis.
One economist said his endorsement was for the "general economic principles only" before expressing disagreement with some of plan's specifics.
Do you support making the 2001 tax cuts permanent?," asked the Huffington Post. "No," replied Peter J Van Blokland, University of Florida.
Do you recommend a temporary gas tax holiday to address rising energy costs? "No."
Do you support a pledge to balance the budget by 2013? "No."
Do you consider your participation in the letter an endorsement of McCain for president? "No."
For several of the 300, McCain's economic proposals were overshadowed by their concerns about his foreign policy. In addition to Connolly, Professor Tom Lehman, of Indiana Wesleyan University, declined to endorse McCain's presidential candidacy.
"I have serious disagreements with McCain on the foreign policy issues, particularly the Iraq War," he said. "However, I support McCain's general approach to issues of economics, specifically his support of free trade, retention of tax cuts, balanced budget, and general free-market philosophy."
Others thought McCain was not conservative enough. One economist said he would not be supporting the presumptive Republican nominee because he (the economist) was a Libertarian. Stephen J. Dempsey, a professor at the University of Vermont's School of Business Administration, decried McCain's proposals as baby steps.
"Yes, I support making the tax cuts permanent," he wrote. "I think a gas tax holiday is a band-aid on an amputated limb. I am in full support of balancing the budget by reducing government expenditures on wasteful programs. My signing the letter is not an endorsement of McCain. We could have done much better (i.e., a true conservative)."
To be sure, more than a handful of those who responded to the Huffington Post said that their endorsement of the Jobs for America plan was, by extension, a pledge of support for McCain's candidacy. (This shouldn't come as a major surprise -- a review found that 166 of McCain's economist backers also signed a letter in 2000 trumpeting George W. Bush's economic agenda.)
"Speaking for myself only," wrote Martin Eichenbaum, Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Economics at Northwestern University. "I support the general principals advocated by Senator McCain as well as many, but not necessarily all, of the detailed policy proposals he has made. I would very much like to balance the budget by 2013. I certainly consider my participation in the letter to be an endorsement of Senator McCain for president."
But clearly the list that the McCain campaign presented does not consist of enthusiastic endorsers. If anything it seems -- from this un-scientific sampling of responders -- that the economists who plan on voting for the Arizona Republican are doing so because he represents, for them, the lesser of two evils.
That is, except for Charles Rowley, a professor at George Mason University, who isn't an American citizen.
"I view my endorsement as an endorsement of the general economic principles so far outlined by John McCain," he wrote. "Since Barack Obama proposes significant increases in the size of government, significant hikes in tax rates, ongoing toleration for pork-barrel legislation, long-term budget deficits and, most seriously, a significant shift towards trade protection, evidently, in terms of the general principles outlined in the letter that I have endorsed, I must prefer John McCain as a presidential candidate in an imperfect world. However, because I am a British citizen, I cannot vote in this election."