Sen. John McCain's straight talk is starting to come out of both sides of his mouth. On key economic issues, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has been telling audiences one thing and policy analysts another.
There are few issues the public cares more about than Social Security and its future. Social Security trustee estimates show that by 2017 the payouts will exceed the taxes coming in, and by 2041 the program's trust fund is expected to be exhausted.
Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, wants to extend the payroll tax to individuals with incomes over $250,000. The first $102,000 in income is taxed for the purposes of Social Security now, and the Illinois senator would not apply the payroll tax to income between that amount and $250,000. This would be a fair approach that would significantly extend the life of Social Security by taxing those who can most afford it.
McCain, on the other hand, promises everything to everybody. The Arizona senator claims he will secure Social Security "without raising taxes." Then, hedging his bets with average voters, McCain also publicly states that his approach is not a privatization plan.
But a closer look at the details reveals McCain is quite open to the widely unpopular privatization ideas promoted by President Bush. He also told the Wall Street Journal on March 3 that "as part of Social Security reform, I believe that private savings accounts are a part of it — along the lines that President Bush proposed." McCain supports privatization of the Social Security program to some extent, and he should be candid about it.
Then there is McCain's position on the alternative minimum tax, the tax that increasingly is threatening middle-class families but initially was designed to make sure that wealthy taxpayers couldn't avoid paying their fair share of income taxes.
In speeches, McCain says he intends to "abolish" the AMT. Yet that is not exactly what he plans. McCain's campaign told a tax policy group that the AMT would be patched, holding constant the number of households currently subject to it. He would give taxpayers who face a hit from the AMT the option of paying under a new, voluntary, simplified tax structure that would allow them to pay less.
According to estimates by the Tax Policy Center, a similar program offered by Fred Thompson during his short-lived campaign for president would have increased the deficit by about $600-billion annually.
If McCain's idea turns out to be anything close to this, it is out of touch with reality. Even getting rid of the revenue that the AMT provides would cost about $60-billion a year in lost taxes, while letting some very wealthy taxpayers off the hook.
McCain is failing to make clear to voters some awfully big asterisks on popular promises. He is following a tired script so typical of candidates running for president: Tell 'em what they want to hear and worry about the truth later.