03/04/2008 12:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain: The Way Out of this Hole is to Keep Digging

John McCain enjoys a fawning press and a maverick reputation. He likes to describe himself as a conservative populist. Straight talk is his boast. But when it comes to the economy, he's peddling the same poisonous brew that is sapping this country's strength. That is why even though John McCain is a a decent man, the campaign this fall will be ugly and mean. McCain couldn't survive a straight up policy debate. A good example is the Wall Street Journal's recent analysis of McCain plans on taxes and spending.

Keep Digging

Bush racked up over $3 trillion in debt over the past seven years. He largely squandered the money on the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy, while starving vital investments here at home in everything from levees to modern schools.

McCain promises even more of the same. The senator now says he's not only for making the Bush tax cuts permanent -- at the cost of $3 trillion over the next decade -- he wants additional corporate and top end tax cuts -- slashing corporate taxes, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax. Relying on campaign figures, the Wall Street Journal estimates McCain's new promises on tax cuts total about $400 billion a year (This doesn't count McCain's musing about tax reform, looking to make the tax code "fairer and flatter," which can only mean lowering taxes on the top and raising them on middle income workers.)

McCain isn't talking about a short term stimulus to get the economy going. He's talking about permanent change. And the tax cuts the senator is pushing -- focused on corporations and the more affluent -- are the least efficient ways to give the economy a boost.

How will he pay for this? McCain loudly censors Bush and Republicans for spending like drunken sailors. But McCain is less forthcoming about what he would cut. He'd keep pumping the $10 billion a month into the war in Iraq, and spend more expanding and rebuilding the military. He won't get it out of entitlements. He says he's still committed to privatizing Social Security along the Bush model, which would have added a staggering $17.5 trillion in debt by 2050 (essentially increasing US total debt by 50%).

What would he cut? McCain vows to veto every congressional earmark that comes his way. What a relief. But earmarks only totaled about $18 billion last year. McCain also points to a list of programs -- largely for the vulnerable -- that Bush thinks should be eliminated. Those too total about $18 billion a year. With Bush's annual budget deficit at $400 billion and rising, and McCain vowing to add another $400 billion in new tax cuts a year, this is a dodge, not an answer. On taxes and spending, as on trade and regulation and war, he is offering only Bush redux.

That's why the coming election campaign will be down and dirty. Forget about Obama's new spirit. Republicans have no choice but to demonize their opponents. McCain can't afford to have a straight policy debate. With Americans suffering recession, costly occupation abroad, stagnant wages, pervasive corporate corruption, homes plummeting in value, more of the same isn't exactly a winning formula.