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McCain's Conspicuous Consumption

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John McCain's new and improved campaign strategy, pundits say, is character assassination. There's only one way to beat Barack Obama, a popular candidate who is as likable as McCain is abrasive, as ready with facts as McCain is goof-prone and as rhetorically eloquent as McCain is the robotic bombast. And that's a GOP duel to the death. Dirty words at thirty paces. Shoot that uppity young Democrat right through his moral center. Snatch up a few big guns from the old Righteous Right Arsenal: "I'm more honorable than you, I love America, our troops and God better than you." Add some brand-spankin' new, tailor-made subliminal weaponry: "I'm safe (heroic, white and Christian), you're dangerous (never a POW, black and maybe even a Muslim...). Clearly Senator Obama lacks the moral, ethical gravitas to lead the nation in troubled times.

In matters of personal and professional character, let there be no doubt John McCain has it all over Barack Obama.

John McCain has no shame.

Social Security, he says, "is an absolute disgrace." The system, he declares, "is broken." He's absolutely right. The United States government has been borrowing money from the Social Security Trust Fund for decades, snatching the surplus to help "balance" the budget or to fund other programs. Our futures have been mortgaged for federal quick fixes -- and the debt owed the Trust Fund has never been repaid. Estimates of that debt range from hundreds of billions to $2 trillion to "The government doesn't really know what it owes..."

It is what it is. The money's gone, the Boomer Generation looms and we're left with a moral dilemma: What do we do to salvage the system for folks who really need it?

One proposal, made more than once in the past, is that those who are fortunate enough to have reached retirement age with inherited wealth, accumulated wealth from successful careers or hefty pensions, make the choice to forgo cashing in on their Social Security benefits. Face it, if your net worth means your annual income is, say, $100 thousand, $200 thousand or more, you own your own home and you have health care benefits, do you really need Social Security? Where is the moral compass pointing when we say "I don't need it -- but it's mine and I'm damn sure not letting someone else touch my money!"?

B.J. Jarrett, spokesperson with the Social Security Administration, says no one is required to take Social Security payments. Anyone is free to decline benefits for a higher purpose. On moral grounds. Because he is a man of character.

I know. It's a lot to ask. Personal character does not come cheap.

John and Cindy McCain are worth millions. It's reported that her inherited Budweiser distributorship is worth more than $100 million. She and hubby John keep their finances neatly separate, file their taxes separately. Cindy's reported total income, for 2006, was more than $6 million. That's right: More than $6 million dollars for a single year. She's requested -- and received -- an extension on her 2007 taxes.

Senator McCain reported a total income in 2007 of $405,409.

Of that nearly half-million dollar income, $23,157 was the senator's Social Security benefits. Yep. He draws his Social Security. He'll be 72 soon and says he started receiving those payments "...whenever I was eligible."

The McCains don't live like you and I live. Between 2004 and last year they spent $11 million buying five condominiums for their own family's use. Two of the family condos are in the same exclusive Coronado, California building. Nice and close to the Pacific. They needed two, Cindy says: "When I bought the first one [John], who is not a beach person, said, 'Oh, this is such a waste of money; the kids will never go.' Then it got to the point where they used it so much I couldn't get in the place. So I bought another one."

Between January 2007 and May 2008, Mrs. McCain charged as much as $500,000 on a single credit card -- in one month. Concurrently, she charged $250,000 on another card. To be fair, it's their money -- and she pays off her charges every month.

One professional wealth manager says the recent hike in the McCain family's credit card charges "could stem from furnishing, decorating and moving into" all those new condos. Lord knows it takes real money to provide your family with truly tasteful surroundings in multiple homes. And, of course, there are incidentals. Like clothes. Cindy told interviewers at Vogue magazine that she's partial to suits by German designer Escada. At $3000. each. If John's elected president, she went on, she may switch loyalties to American designer Carolina Herrera -- whose clothing line is every bit as pricey. It's the least one can do. For America.

Unlike millions and millions of Americans, the McCain family is in no danger of unemployment, loss of health insurance or foreclosure on any of their homes. They're solvent. In the extreme.

But surely the issue of character comes into play here. There is a cogent argument to be made that there is moral bankruptcy in a lifestyle so luxuriously self-indulgent during war time, during a recession. While Social Security staggers under the weight of strain and drain, John McCain is cashing in on a "broken" system. And that, to use his own words, "Is an absolute disgrace."