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Tilting at Windmills

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July 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BUDGET MAGIC....Josh Marshall reads about John McCain's plan to balance the budget and is flabbergasted:

The general routine [in] the face of this kind of candidate announcement is that journalists and economists look at the numbers to see if they add up. In most cases, the exercises generates fairly unsatisfying contradictory opinions, with some experts saying one thing and other experts another.

But here's the thing. McCain doesn't have any numbers. None. Not vague numbers of fuzzy math. He just says he's going to do it. Any other candidate would get laughed off the stage with that kind of nonsense or more likely reporters just wouldn't agree to give them a write up.

Sure, but what's a Republican to do these days? They're supposed to be fiscal conservatives, which means they have to pretend to love balanced budgets. So McCain does. Raising taxes is, however, verboten by party fiat, which leaves an aspiring GOP president only two choices: (a) reducing spending and (b) magic. Unfortunately for our hero, proposing actual, concrete budget cuts of any substance is political suicide and he knows it. This leaves magic as the only alternative.

In McCain's case, this seems to take the form of blather about eliminating earmarks (a reform that might be worthwhile but wouldn't actually cut the budget); more blather about "wasteful spending" (the political blowhard's best friend); a bit of nonsense about reducing defense expenditures after we've won all the wars we're fighting (sure, you betcha); and finally, every stumped pol's favorite gimmick: an across-the-board one-year spending freeze. This is a standard last-ditch device that gets hauled out whenever there's no actual plan to do anything serious.

Now, that's all bad enough, but can you imagine how bad it would be if McCain actually had the balls to put numbers to this twaddle? No more magic! Instead it would just be a bad joke.

So McCain really doesn't have much choice. Given the economic pieties imposed on Republicans these days, he's probably picked the least bad option available to him. There are worse things than a few days of mockery, after all.

Kevin Drum 8:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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Comments

McCain better have a lot of BBQ and booze ready.

Posted by: CarlP on July 7, 2008 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

But Obama has embraced McCain Budget!

Posted by: gregor on July 7, 2008 at 8:19 PM | PERMALINK

But won't the religious right attack him for sorcery?

Posted by: Rob S. on July 7, 2008 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

It would be nice if a few days of mockery were in fact forthcoming, but thus far the major outlets seem to have swallowed the story pretty much whole.

"Experts differ on shape of earth."

Posted by: on July 7, 2008 at 8:29 PM | PERMALINK

It would be nice if a few days of mockery were in fact forthcoming, but thus far the major outlets seem to have swallowed the story pretty much whole.

"Experts differ on shape of earth."

Posted by: paul on July 7, 2008 at 8:29 PM | PERMALINK

So, as I see it, McCain is basing his economic recovery policy on "victory" in Iraq. What would this "victory" look like? When is it going to be achieved? Most people understand that country is nearing, if not in, a recession. How long is this "victory" going to take & what is McCain going to do in the meantime?

Ironically, you know what would draw down the US footprint in Iraq & cut a lot of spending? Getting the hell out of Iraq.

Myself, I wouldn't even bet $100 on when "victory" in Iraq will be achieved, if ever. McCain seems willing to peg the economic health of his nation on it. Why is anyone taking McCain seriously? Josh has good reason to be flabbergasted (I suspect he's being polite by only being flabbergasted).

Posted by: raff on July 7, 2008 at 8:30 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe we can just transfer the national debt to Cindy's credit card.

Posted by: lampwick on July 7, 2008 at 8:38 PM | PERMALINK

McCain doesn't do math, economics, or, in fact, anything thoughtful.

He doesn't do magic either.

It's only the MSM that supplies the king with any clothes at all.

Posted by: notthere on July 7, 2008 at 8:39 PM | PERMALINK

What, no ponies for everybody, too?

Posted by: jrw on July 7, 2008 at 8:39 PM | PERMALINK

The real point of Josh's piece is that McCain is not even going to get the "few days of mockery."

Posted by: Cap and Gown on July 7, 2008 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

Thread over folks, Rob S. won without even breathing hard. Thread over man!

Posted by: jerry on July 7, 2008 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK

Nice: he's insulated from attacks because his plan is so transparently meaningless that there's nothing to attack. Somebody throw our press corp in a sack and drown them.

Posted by: JD on July 7, 2008 at 9:11 PM | PERMALINK

How can you have a victory in a country Bush and Condi called sovereign?

Anyway, I suppose McCain is talking about Irag having to buy our debt thru its oil profits. IE the American people.

Posted by: Jet on July 7, 2008 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

We are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is a sovereign nation. Twelve million people went to the polls to approve a constitution. It’s their government’s choice. If they were to say, leave, we would leave. -GWB

Yet McCain still thinks its a war.

Posted by: Jet on July 7, 2008 at 9:22 PM | PERMALINK

And yet...

Posted by: Brock Landers on July 7, 2008 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

Looks like we all better start collecting underpants.

Posted by: ogmb on July 7, 2008 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK

in other words...

McCain opens with a shrug and dares Obama to put actual numbers out there - numbers which can be picked apart by the SCLM.

Posted by: cleek on July 7, 2008 at 9:39 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum should debate two of the Nobel prizewinners in economics who have endorsed McCain's economic plan. It might be fun to watch, for members of the reality-based community.

You can always tell a USC man, but you can't tell him much.

Posted by: y81 on July 7, 2008 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

jerry >"...Rob S. won..."

I don`t know, looks to me like lampwick has a good entry...

"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist" - John Maynard Keynes

Posted by: daCascadian on July 7, 2008 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

Fiscal Conservativism is an outdated phrase. We need a term for the belief in lower taxes, higher spending, and long-term balanced budget projections. Let's call it Bushonomics.

Posted by: reino on July 7, 2008 at 10:28 PM | PERMALINK

Raff, we may even get something resembling "victory" in Iraq, but Afghanistan is going downhill (mostly due to the former involvement.) Then what'll we do?

Posted by: !!! on July 7, 2008 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

Hey y81, you forgot that psychology makes people attracted to things for ideological reasons, and even NP winners can be assholes (like Uncle Miltie, the founder more or less of the destructive shock capitalism so well taken down by Naomi Klein lately.) And BTW, how many NP winners would have to say that global warming was caused by our industrial/farming CO2 before conservatives would believe in it?

Posted by: !!! on July 7, 2008 at 10:50 PM | PERMALINK

In a sane media environment, McCain's economic proposals would have been met by a deafening accounting of how this failure on his part either to A) counter the insane orthodoxy of the GOP elite, or to B) have the stones to come out with numbers that fifth-grade arithmetic can check, just shows that McCain is EITHER A FRAUD OR A COWARD, AND MOST LIKELY BOTH.

Posted by: s9 on July 7, 2008 at 10:51 PM | PERMALINK

In a sane media environment, McCain's economic proposals would have been met by a deafening accounting of how this failure on his part either to A) counter the insane orthodoxy of the GOP elite, or to B) have the stones to come out with numbers that fifth-grade arithmetic can check, just shows that McCain is EITHER A FRAUD OR A COWARD, AND MOST LIKELY BOTH.

Posted by: s9 on July 7, 2008 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

If McCain is counting on "winning" the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to free up extra cash for balancing the budget, this report from the Washington Post would cool his jets, if he was sincere.

By Walter Pincus
Monday, July 7, 2008; Page A11

GAO Cites Spiraling Costs Of New Weapons Programs
The major weapons systems being developed and produced by the Defense Department will require $1.6 trillion to complete and $335 billion over the next five years -- money that may not be available because of the continuing cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

Posted by: John Norris on July 7, 2008 at 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin writes ...proposing actual, concrete budget cuts of any substance is political suicide...

And that, I'm afraid, is the crux of the problem.

When politicians cannot effectively propose cutting budgets without committing political suicide, and proposals for new spending get votes, then have not we, as voters, given up fiscal responsibility?

Posted by: pencarrow on July 7, 2008 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

It belies belief that a major contender for POTUS is so clueless.

The monies spent in Afghanistan and Iraq are totally beyond belief already (and more or less "off budget.").

Somewhere I remember the Pentagon was being audited on 9/10/01 for ~25% of un accounted for funds... now it's close to 50%!

McCain is able ????

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on July 7, 2008 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum should debate two of the Nobel prizewinners in economics who have endorsed McCain's economic plan.

You'd think that a couple of economic heavyweights like Nobel laureates might pause for a second to trumpet McCain's ability to balance the budget. Or even mention it. They didn't. Gotta keep a straight face, after all.

Posted by: junebug on July 8, 2008 at 12:06 AM | PERMALINK

It is a brilliant plan. Victory everywhere, deficit reduction leading to budget surpluses, tax cuts, health care solutions, economic stimulus, tax cuts, social security fixes, tax cuts, energy abundance coupled with reduced dependency on foreign oil, climate rectification, and tax cuts. Obama could never come up with such a plan, because he would get stuck in the details, being mired in reality.

Posted by: AJB on July 8, 2008 at 1:09 AM | PERMALINK

How can you get elected without lying to the sheeple?

Posted by: Luther on July 8, 2008 at 1:15 AM | PERMALINK

Ah yes, is this where David Brooks or NRO step in and tell us “what Bush –er, I mean McCain REALLY met to say” – lets not forget how our corporate owned media is required to scramble and define Bush but now it’s McCain’s idiot talk – never mind that NO Dem candidate would EVER be excused for this ranting – or what was McCain’s word “diatribe”, this diatribe, but of course the Villages will get right on it, help McCain decipher his gibberish–it is the very least our corporate owned Media can do for the corporate owned party that McCain represents – same thing as our Villagers did for Bush’s gobbledygook.

In case anyone has any doubts that our media is indeed truly f*uck up.

And for this our inhumane corporate elite wanted a shield law. Judith Miller only spend a little time in jail instead of the really long time she truly deserved for the 4000 dead we have in this lied about war in Iraq. The media lies like Bush lies because they are paid to lie and have an agenda to lie.

Posted by: Me_again on July 8, 2008 at 1:26 AM | PERMALINK

As the US is borrowing the money to fight the 'war on terror' in Iraq and Afghanistan, won't 'winning' (whatever that means) mean that the borrowing will be reduced and the debt will grow more slowly?

Posted by: DaveInOz on July 8, 2008 at 2:17 AM | PERMALINK

"There are worse things than a few days of mockery, after all."

As pointed out above, this is nonsense and Kevin should know better. What mockery? The MSM is reporting this as serious policy and that is all the majority of clueless voters will hear. I have insisted for months that, because of McCain's favorable coverage, the liberal blogosphere was ridiculously overconfident in an Obama win. But even my jaw drops at the incredible lengths to which the MSM is going to elect McCain. If McSame announced that, unless Sauron renounced his WMD program to forge a new Ring of Power, he would personally lead the armies of the West in an invasion of Mordor, the MSM would not only report this straight faced and scrutiny free, but they would demand to know (without any evidence other than a a McCain press release) why Obama has agreed to unconditional talks with Sauron.

Posted by: Marlowe on July 8, 2008 at 4:07 AM | PERMALINK

McCain's plan is fully explained in this youtube video which gets into specifics.

Posted by: MillionthMonkey on July 8, 2008 at 5:08 AM | PERMALINK

As a charter member of the netroots' Obamabimbos, Josh Marshall of late seems to be perpetually flabbergasted professionally.

As such, I find him to be intellectually disingenuous, as I do most pundits who harness their opinions to the prevailing political winds, and I no longer pay any attention to him.

Posted by: Out & About in The Castro. on July 8, 2008 at 5:15 AM | PERMALINK

A man who was kept in a cage by the Vietnamese can balance the federal budget through sheer force of will.

Look, the Republican Party has become a bunch of delusional sloganeers. Many of them honestly think that lowering taxes increases federal revenues, even though there is not a shred of evidence that supports that. Soon McCain will claim Elvis and Bigfoot piloting a UFO, will harness the power of the Loch Ness monster and solve all of our energy problems.

The sad part - many Republicans will believe him!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on July 8, 2008 at 5:57 AM | PERMALINK

What do you make of this? It's from Pete DuPont in the WSJ last October:

2003 tax cuts on income, capital gains and dividends. Those reductions have raised federal tax receipts by $785 billion, the largest four-year revenue increase in U.S. history. In fiscal 2007, which ended last month, the government took in 6.7% more tax revenues than in 2006.

These increases in tax revenue have substantially reduced the federal budget deficits. In 2004 the deficit was $413 billion, or 3.5% of gross domestic product. It narrowed to $318 billion in 2005, $248 billion in 2006 and $163 billion in 2007. That last figure is just 1.2% of GDP, which is half of the average of the past 50 years.

Lower tax rates have be so successful in spurring growth that the percentage of federal income taxes paid by the very wealthy has increased. According to the Treasury Department, the top 1% of income tax filers paid just 19% of income taxes in 1980 (when the top tax rate was 70%), and 36% in 2003, the year the Bush tax cuts took effect (when the top rate became 35%). The top 5% of income taxpayers went from 37% of taxes paid to 56%, and the top 10% from 49% to 68% of taxes paid. And the amount of taxes paid by those earning more than $1 million a year rose to $236 billion in 2005 from $132 billion in 2003, a 78% increase.

Posted by: Terry Ott on July 8, 2008 at 6:23 AM | PERMALINK

Wow. Talk about voodoo economics!

Posted by: goto L on July 8, 2008 at 7:10 AM | PERMALINK


"As a matter of principle, we do not think tax cuts pay for themselves." - Robert Carroll, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax analysis October-2006

Posted by: mr. irony on July 8, 2008 at 7:44 AM | PERMALINK

Jesus, Kevin, stop paroting McInsane's idiotic campaign lines. You sound like his journalist base. Earmarks are NOT the problem, transparency is. Earmarks are a necessary tool to insure that government agencies don't misuse funds outside of their intended purposes.

Earmarks have been terribly abused, but don't throw out the baby with the bath water. Reform the earmark process to require authors to put their name on earmark requests, but do not outlaw them. That idea is pure idiocy on McInsane's part, and every liberal who tries to stride the middle on this issue is only reinforcing McInsane's ignorant meme.

Posted by: MeLoseBrain? on July 8, 2008 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

NOT STOP IT! The man's a frigging HERO...he doesn't need to explain how he'll do things...he just has to tell us he will! How unpatriotic and unAmerican to question his integrity/numbers/resolve/military service/breathing...tsk, tsk

Posted by: Dancer on July 8, 2008 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

@ John Norris: Of course the Pentagon is running up HUGE projections of future costs. That's so that President McSame can cut them back, thus not only balancing the budget, but immediately eliminating the entire deficit.

For example, if the Pentagon projects $10 trillion in future costs, cutting $9 trillion of that and applying the savings to the deficit would put us in balance. The man is BRILLIANT!

Posted by: PQuincy on July 8, 2008 at 9:58 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: "There are worse things than a few days of mockery, after all."

There won't be any "mockery" of McCain from the corporate-owned mass media from which most Americans get most of their information. They will present McCain's BS to the American people as "mavericky independent straight talk from a war hero", while attacking Obama's substantive and detailed budget proposals, which directly address the problems facing the vast majority of Americans, as "confused naive empty words from a guy who constantly changes his position on Iraq and will say and do anything to get elected and refuses to wear a flag lapel pin" or whatever is the latest baloney coming from the Republicans.

The people who run the giant corporations that own and control virtually all of America's mass media want Their Man McCain in the White House.

And they are going to glorify McCain and wage a campaign of character assassination against Obama -- just exactly as they glorified Bush and waged campaigns of character assassination against Gore and Kerry.

That's what got Bush close enough to steal two elections in a row, and that's the plan for 2008.

Why anyone should be surprised by this, or imagine that the fake, phony "political press corps" of the corporate-owned media would do anything else, is a mystery.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 8, 2008 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

As a charter member of the netroots' Obamabimbos, Josh Marshall of late seems to be perpetually flabbergasted professionally. As such, I find him to be intellectually disingenuous, as I do most pundits who harness their opinions to the prevailing political winds, and I no longer pay any attention to him.

I'm sure he'll be terribly sorry to hear that.

Posted by: Stefan on July 8, 2008 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

Shorter Kevin: Telling the truth is a bad career move for a Republican politician, because it alienates their base.

Posted by: anandine on July 8, 2008 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

Look, it's well known that mathematics -- indeed, reality itself -- has a liberal bias. You can hardly expect Gigolo John to compete on that ground.

Posted by: Stefan on July 8, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

I think McCain has actually lost what's left. Next he will promise to increase domestic oil production to free us from imports. OH NO I think he did that today. What about immigration? No No don't tell me...

Posted by: muffler on July 8, 2008 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

When politicians cannot effectively propose cutting budgets without committing political suicide, and proposals for new spending get votes, then have not we, as voters, given up fiscal responsibility?
Posted by: pencarrow on July 7, 2008 at 11:34 PM | PERMALINK

No one responded. I guess liberals don't want to blame the American people for the budget deficits. After all government gives the people the programs they clamor for. Bread and circuses for everyone!

Posted by: FreedomLover on July 8, 2008 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

I'll take magic for $900, Alex.

Posted by: bobbyp on July 8, 2008 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

For the record, here's some commentary by/about Republicans who don't like McCain's economic proposals:
http://www.portfolio.com/views/blogs/market-movers/2008/07/08/the-economic-policy-of-john-mccain?rss=true

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