Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 27, 2008

MR. FREEZE.... I'd like to think this might draw some additional attention in the aftermath of last night's debate, but there was an exchange that deserves a closer look.

Jim Lehrer noted that the cost of the response to the financial crisis is still undetermined, but it's likely to be enormous. He pressed McCain on how it would affect his presidency. McCain responded, "How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs." Asked if he was really proposing a spending freeze, McCain added, "I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues."

Now, as far as I can tell, a spending freeze has never been part of McCain's policy agenda. In all likelihood, he came up with it on the spot and will never repeat this again.

But he nevertheless made this pronouncement in front of the whole country. And a spending freeze of this magnitude goes well beyond getting rid of a few earmarks. Mark Schmitt explained:

A spending freeze ... is a very specific thing -- some programs will be in the freeze, some out. In a recession, programs that would normally cost more automatically -- like Food Stamps or Unemployment Insurance -- will be unable to respond.

Over the next few weeks, Obama (as well as the press, if it's not too much to ask) should pound relentlessly on the spending freeze: What's frozen, and what's "several other vital issues"? In a recession, are Food Stamps frozen? Student loans? Unemployment benefits? Pell Grants? S-CHIP? Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP)? The list is long, and different states and constituencies naturally have their own programs that they would like to know whether McCain would freeze them or not.

And wherever McCain's answer is yes, that program would be part of the freeze, numbers can usually be put to it quickly. For example, freezing LIHEAP would leave X million seniors without heat this winter. Freezing Pell Grants would mean X million students couldn't go to college.

At the end, McCain will be in one of two boxes: Either he's a guy who is willing to slash every domestic program, leave seniors in the dark and kids blocked from college, while dumping hundreds of billions of dollars into Wall Street and Baghdad, plus his tax cuts. Or his "spending freeze" is just another vacuous gimmick.

It's probably considered passe for the media to care about a policy pronouncement made during a debate, but this is a fairly big deal -- which, in theory, could be devastating to McCain. As Yglesias noted, his proposed spending freeze would, in real terms, mean "less money for your local police department. Less money for the FBI. Less money for Head Start. Less money for Pell Grants. Less money for infrastructure. Less money for everything except failed banks and endless wars."

If McCain really believes this is a wise approach to the budget, voters ought to know about it.

Steve Benen 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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It's probably considered passe for the media to care about a policy pronouncement made by a Republican during a debate ...


Posted by: on September 27, 2008 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

"I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues."

So really he wants to turn the US into a military state. I'm no expert but isn't that pretty much what the soviet Union was? Nothing but a big military, everything else be damned.

Posted by: Saint Zak on September 27, 2008 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

McCain's fondness for war in general cannot be overstated by the Obama campaign. People are fed up with the Iraq debacle. Money for war, but not for seniors, students, children, etc. That is McCain's philosophy, his value set.

I'm glad Barack Obama talked about where we choose to spend our tax dollars describes our values. His are diametrically opposed to McCain's. And I think the majority of people agree with Obama.

Posted by: Hannah on September 27, 2008 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Look, there's a reason that, as small a part of the Federal budget discretionary spending is, even Republicans like Bush didn't make substantial cuts, and it isn't because Bush is not a conservative, as dishonest jackasses like the Doughy Pantload try to claim.

Many of these programs are popular and/or meet a genuine need that those states, those "laboratories of democracies," either can't or won't.

McCain tries to equate cutting Federal spending with pork, waste and nonsense, but Obama should not let him frame it that way. Steve is exactly right -- how many seniors is McCain willing to let go without heat this winter for his spending freeze?

Posted by: Gregory on September 27, 2008 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK

Nothing new in what he said. McCain basically said the same thing in a few weeks ago. (Earliest I remember was June, although the scope was fuzzy IIRC.)

Posted by: has407 on September 27, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

Steve: "If McCain really believes this is a wise approach to the budget, voters ought to know about it."

Sorry, forgot to add in my post above...
Someone, it may have been Jim Wallis, has said "Budgets are moral documents". IOW, where our priorities lie. McCain's obviously lie with war and military might. No surprise. Obama's lie with the people. Again no surprise. I'd like to hear Obama emphasize this in the next two debates. It's about the economy, stupid, and how are we all faring?

Posted by: Hannah on September 27, 2008 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

Not a mistake by McFreeze.
He gave himself 100% cover with the bit about "several other vital issues."

He stirs the pot with no chance of mortal repercussion.
This "shot in the dark" may or may not keep newzcrap in the spotlight.
However, it is an opening into his frozen agenda for any on-the-ball candidate.

Posted by: olo on September 27, 2008 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, the Kennedy comment McCain made was (aside from so transparently full of it) incorrect--it was reported (about an hour or so before the debate that Kennedy had indeed returned home after earlier suffering a minor stroke--and he was eager to get home in time to watch the debate. (and no doubt root for Obama!).

Posted by: on September 27, 2008 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

McCain declares, in spite of known scientific theory, that he can create a new equilibrium point for federal government, by being elected. The height of narcissism.

Progressives, like Obama do the same, declaring a new equilibrium by merely electing someone.

Government tax and spend actions are determined by normal laws of supply and demand, our political structure determines the relative optimal share of federal,state and local share. Politicians who try to jiggle the equilibrium point invariable get nothing like they intended. Generally, they are able to defer payments for a time, but the chicken always comes home to roost.

Posted by: Matt on September 27, 2008 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

What is with the republicans continuous chastising of spending? At thirty-two, Republicans of my generation have spent madly. At some point a reputation should reflect actions.

McCain talked about the growth of government following 911 and nobody blinked. We are limited government, but we only grow the government - you want to find areas to reduce spending?

We are for fiscal responsibility, but look at our tax code, look at the recklessness in our budgets, look at the deficits.

Why no examination of the claims republicans make? Because 70 years ago the party was actually led by men who acted on the values they espoused!

Why is every journalist ignorant to the modern history of this party?

Do you flipping JOB msm.

Posted by: TBone on September 27, 2008 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

"How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs."

After all that, what's left?

Posted by: asdf on September 27, 2008 at 3:44 PM | PERMALINK

"McCain's fondness for war in general cannot be overstated by the Obama campaign. "

So true Hannah. McCain's not just a warmonger but an isolationist in the worst way.

Shit by the time these bastards get done with the country, Mexico, Canada AND Cuba will be throwing nukes at us.

And did anyone else catch the allusion to Putin as KGB? Seems the short, ducky, saber-rattlin' putz and his dominatrix lap-dog sincerely want to bring on Armageddon.

"Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that has basically become a KGB apparatchik-run government. I looked in Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three letters -- a K, a G and B," McCain said"

Hey Maverick Boy, how many lifts do put in your shoes to see above the podium?

Posted by: MissMudd on September 27, 2008 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

If you subtract 1. debt service, 2. defense -- including homeland security and defense-related portions of other departments like State and Energy, 3. statutory entitlement programs, 4. pensions, and 5. veterans' progrgams what's left could be zeroed out, and there'd still be a current-account deficit.

All of it. The FAA, FDA, IRS, and every alphabet soup agency -- closed. LIHEAP, S-CHIP, and the entire social safety net except for Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and TANF -- eliminated. All non S&R functions of the Coast Guard, the Park Service, the NIH -- zeroed out. Every subsidy, trade adjustment assistance payment, NSF grant -- halted.

And there'd still be a deficit.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on September 27, 2008 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

I assume he also wants to eliminate Homeland Security, including Fema. Dump OSHA, MSHA, EPA, SEC and FDA. In fact get rid of all the alphabet things. Suddenly, Palin doesn't seem like the dumbest one on the ticket.

Posted by: Danp on September 27, 2008 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry Davis X, didn't mean to repeat. It's hard to anticipate here, and sometimes I have trouble refreshing the comment section.

Posted by: on September 27, 2008 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

Agreed that it's a stupid idea, but Has407 is right - it's been part of the McCain "promises" for a while.

Posted by: Brian Schmidt on September 27, 2008 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

I actually thought that was a moment of idiocy for Lehrer. How could anyone know what might need to be cut, until we have an inkling as to the true cost of the bailout? Is it $700 bil? A trillion? Considerably less? No one knows.
My take on McCain's answer was different. "Defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs" are fairly sloppy pigeon holes that could be argued to be the entire federal budget. Foodstamps? An entitlement. Medical research? Defense. When I heard McCain say that, my reaction was it was the non-answer to end all non-answers.

Posted by: JoeW on September 27, 2008 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

These broad statements, "I'll eliminate pork-barrel spending," or "I'll freeze government programs," sound really great and McCain may even mean them. He can do little or nothing in this regard without the co-operation of Congress, whose members are reliant on pork-barrel spending and whose constituents are the beneficiaries of these programs. Our canny Congress critters are Jedi masters at attaching these goodies to must-sign bills and then playing chicken with the president.

Posted by: Dennis - SGMM on September 27, 2008 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

It appears McCain's campaign theme song has been borrowed from "Gypsy" -- it's "You Gotta Have A Gimmick."

Posted by: Vincent on September 27, 2008 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

It will be for the Obama campaign to make a big deal out of this because the MSM probably didn't even notice, and most likely don't care. So much BS is thrown around in a campaign, especially McCain's,that few people take anything a candidate says seriously. Does anyone remember "I'm a uniter not a divider?"

Of course if a Democrat makes some sort or outrageous statement the Rethug slime machine is all over it within five minutes.

Somehow the Obama campaign is going the route of Gore and Kerry by not landing the punches that could be so easily thrown. I don't understand. I beginning to believe it's deliberate.

Posted by: rich on September 27, 2008 at 5:00 PM | PERMALINK

I note that about 4 minutes after he proposed a spending freeze, McCain said we could no doubt "adjust spending around" to fund urgent priorities. But the spending freeze is the opposite of "adjusting spending around", it precludes spending more somewhere by taking it from somewhere else. In fact, that's the point, it avoids the tough decisions (otherwise called "leadership").

Just more evidence that either McCain pulled the spending cap out of his sorry ass and/or he doesn't understand what it means.

Posted by: bruce on September 27, 2008 at 5:12 PM | PERMALINK

The question of whether McCain believes what he says has gotten to be quite a philosophical conundrum.

Can one be said to truly "believe" what one says if one doesn't understand it? He doesn't really have any understanding of what a "freeze" is; it just sounds good. It's decisive, action-oriented, dramatic.

If I say something completely nonsensical, like maybe "The flay-rod's gone askew on the treadle!" do I actually "believe" it? Or do I just say it because it's in the script, or because I like the sound of the words together, or because, once in my earlier years someone said "flay-rod" and someone else said "treadle" and I got the (mistaken) impression that they went together?

Does McCain believe the nonsense he says? Maybe, maybe not. Who cares? It's nonsense, and I don't want another president spewing nonsense at me.

Posted by: biggerbox on September 27, 2008 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

If we were to play this by John McFootInMouth's rules---and we most certainly should, as the greatest weapon in any conflict is to turn your enemy's guns on him, and fire away with absolutely no remorse whatsoever to the point-blank-ranged carnage inflicted on the enemy soldiery---he said it in front of the camera's live, and before an audience of the most global proportions.

There is no "out-of-context" excuse available for reframing the meaning of the comment. Likewise, there is no opportunity to "revise and amend comments" as there is on the floor of the Senate. McCain's campaign is coming apart at the seams; it is coming apart between the seams; it is coming apart in places that don't even exist in the realm of coming-apart-ness. Given this, I would certainly not want to be a Republican right now---because if I were, then I'd be looking at my Party getting its "wipe-ee" waxed at least as badly as Goldwater did in '64.

Outrageously optimistic, you say? Perhaps---but as the self-destruct modality of McCain/Palin continues apace, there will be a great many Republicans who would have to "hang their heads in shame and hold their manhoods cheap" in order to say with any conviction at all: "I voted for John McCain on November 4, 2008."

Such was the legacy of Goldwater's defeat in 1964, and so it may well be yet again---in but 38 mere days from now....

Posted by: Steve on September 27, 2008 at 6:49 PM | PERMALINK

I'm no expert but isn't that pretty much what the soviet Union was? Nothing but a big military, everything else be damned. -- Saintt Zak, @15:18

Nope. Huge military spending yes, but also everything else. Free schooling, at all levels (including U, *if* you could get in). Almost free housing (but in extremely crammed together conditions). Almost free healthcare (free visits to the doctor and hospital and heavily subsidized drugs).

*Everything* was state-owned and state-subsidized. Out of necessity, because the tax system was the-other-way-round from what it's here. The pay was extremely low, because the "taxes" were hidden -- calculated into the pay. So that, what your contract said you were earning, is what you took home. No sales taxes either and no property taxes.

Because of that, people spent ca 60% of their income on food, even though that, too, had been subsidized to an extent (price controls; the same pair of shoes was the same price in Vladivostok and in Moscow.)

Poland operated on the same system (though spending less on the military, since USSR was supposed to be watching our back) and it was very difficult for me to adjust to the realities here.

Posted by: exlibra on September 27, 2008 at 7:21 PM | PERMALINK

One of McCain's scariest lines last night isn't getting much play: "As president of the United States, I want to assure you, I've got a pen. This one's kind of old. I've got a pen, and I'm going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk. I will make them famous. You will know their names."

EVERY single spending bill? Will they have names like defense and social security and disaster relief?

Posted by: Rick on September 27, 2008 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

But he nevertheless made this pronouncement in front of the whole country.

Do you really believe the whole country watches debates yet we STILL got 8 years of Shrubya?
I sure HOPE not!

You also need to remember:
John McCain does not officially speak for the John McCain campaign.

Easy to forget, I know.
Also try to keep in mind that up is down, black is white, and the Constitution is a G*ddam piece of paper.

I'm oowearyforoutrage and I'm fatalistically resigned to this message.

Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on September 27, 2008 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

Another gimmick or "code-word" wrt the bailout: taxpayers.

When Republicans say protect the taxpayer, please pay attention. Corporations pay taxes, non-american entities pay taxes. Some poor Americans don't pay taxes. Republicans probably think that the more taxes you could potentially pay makes you more of a taxpayer, even if you can somehow avoid paying them.

Posted by: tomj on September 27, 2008 at 9:23 PM | PERMALINK

Also, budget cuts during recession are a really really really bad idea. That's what Hoover discovered.

Note that the $700 billion bailout will not add a penny to aggregate demand, at least directly. It represents a purchase of paper, not of roads, schools, missiles, or anything else that requires labor to construct.

Now is not the time for budget cuts, regardless of how deep in the hole we are.

Posted by: Measure for Measure on September 27, 2008 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

"... how many seniors is McCain willing to let go without heat this winter for his spending freeze?"
Posted by: Gregory on September 27, 2008

It has been the policy of the Republicans since about 1984 to spend this nation into such debt that Democrats won't be able to spend a nickel on anything but the military. They hope to destroy Social Security and any other social programs FDR created. President Bush says we need to spend $700 billion dollars to avoid a financial catastrophe. This is just one more Republican spending plan to put us so far in debt we can't even breathe. It's irresponsible and dangerous.

America doesn't want to waste $700B on Wall Street. We just want to save Main Street.

It became pretty clear during the debate when John McCain pointed out that we would have to cut spending BECAUSE of the debt. But, how far were we in debt before this $700B bailout? How far were we in debt before the Iraq war? How far do we have to be in debt to satisfy the Republicans?

American can't afford to have John McCain and Republicans continue spending us into bankruptcy.

In the 1990s the Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union had fallen and there was talk of a "peace dividend". Then there was talk in government about having a military capable of fighting two large wars at the same time. Now, instead of peace and prosperity we have war in Iraq and we're going deeper and deeper into debt. It's an irresponsible policy the Republicans are following.

We can't afford to let Republicans continue to spend us into bankruptcy.

We can't afford to let John McCain continue that Republican policy to bankrupt America.

America's government isn't too big because of Social Security. It isn't too big because of the park service. It isn't too big because of the FBI. It isn't too big because of domestic spending.

Our government is too big because Republicans keep creating enemies for us to fight with our military -- and on the military we spend as much as the rest of the world combined! That's too much. We can't afford to waste that much money.

If John McCain wants to cut spending he should review the idea of why we need a military large enough to fight TWO simultaneous wars and to maintain hundreds of bases around the world. We will obviously have to rebuild some after Iraq. But, we don't need to bankrupt ourselves. We need more common sense in government.

America can't afford Republicans who don't understand the economy to run our economy.

America can't afford John McCain.

Posted by: MarkH on September 27, 2008 at 10:18 PM | PERMALINK



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