On a broader range of economic issues, though, Mr. McCain readily departs from Reaganomics. His philosophy is best described as a work in progress. He is refreshingly blunt when he tell me: “I’m going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.” OK, so who does he turn to for advice? His answer is reassuring. His foremost economic guru is former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm (who would almost certainly be Treasury secretary in a McCain administration). He’s also friendly with the godfather of supply-side economics, Arthur Laffer.
But Mr. McCain is no antitax supply-sider himself. He grandstanded against the Bush capital-gains and dividend tax cuts and even co-sponsored an amendment with Tom Daschle to scuttle the reduction in the highest income-tax rates. Why? “I just thought it was too tilted to the wealthy and I still do. I want to cut the taxes on the middle class.” Even when I confront him with emphatic evidence that those tax cuts have been an economic triumph and have increased revenues, he is unrepentant and defends his “no” vote by falling back on class-warfare type thinking: “We have a wealth gap in this country, and that worries me.”
It is here in my conversation with the senator that the McCain economic philosophy starts to come into vivid focus. Throughout our chat he has referred to Theodore Roosevelt in almost reverential terms and glows when I ask about him. He calls TR “my hero . . . and one of our greatest presidents,” and at one point he excitedly searches through his briefcase and pulls out a book that he is reading on the famously tumultuous election of 1912. That was when TR bolted from the Republican Party (which Mr. McCain concedes was “a mistake”) and formed the Bull Moose Party to dethrone William Taft. When I mention TR’s trust-busting (which was mostly counterproductive economically), Mr. McCain really comes to life, exultantly points his finger in the air, smiles and cries out: “He called the trusts ‘the malefactors of wealth.’ ”
And in this very moment it becomes clear to me that John McCain aspires to be a modern-day TR. The similarities are unmistakable: Both were war heroes, mavericks within their own party, reformers and defenders of the little guy.
But here in a nutshell lies the danger of the McCain view of the world. Where some see the vast virtue of entrepreneurial wealth-generators and job-producers, he too often sees “robber barons.” He seems forever in search of the next Joe Camel, Charles Keating, Ken Lay or Jose Canseco (Mr. McCain has been a prominent crusader against steroids in baseball).
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He views himself, I believe, as a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, a defender of the downtrodden and tormentor of the bullying special interests, which is endearing and unquestionably a big part of his broad political appeal, but often leads to populist and parasitic economic policy conclusions like higher taxes on the rich and attacks on “huge oil profits.” He wants to be the caped crusader against corruption. The buzzword for the McCain Straight Talk Express in 2008 will be reform: “I want to reform education, reform Medicare and Social Security, reform lobbying and campaigns. Reform immigration. Reform. Reform. Reform.”
When I ask him about America’s remarkable income mobility, he responds, “Yes, but I keep seeing the thousands of faces of those poor people who were left behind in New Orleans,” as if this was a failure of capitalism, not a failure of government. And with this, he gobbles down the last bite of his unpretentious lunch–a hot dog and chips–shakes my hand warmly, and sprints off to his next appointment to clean up whatever the latest mess is in Washington.
I come away believing that if I’m ever in a knife fight or in a foxhole, there is no one I’d rather have next to me than John McCain. Whether he’s someone who should be steering the rudders of the American economy is a different issue altogether.
IndeedTM–although hopefully with Gramm and Laffer as advisors, he wouldn’t screw things up too badly.