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Saturday, August 02, 2008

McCain's camp suffers from a paper gap

John McCain

While campaigns typically snow reporters with white papers and policy minutiae, many of the domestic policy plans of John McCain have been notably short on details.

Analysts caution that both McCain and Barack Obama have produced policy pronouncements that are just as much election documents as workable proposals; after all, that is what presidential candidates do. But when it comes to the metric of paper produced, McCain trails Obama in spelling out the nitty-gritty.

"The Obama people are much more detailed," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan advocacy group dedicated to balancing the budget.

Consider McCain campaign senior adviser Taylor Griffin’s description of his candidate's plan for fixing Social Security:

"The history of the Social Security debate has taught that too many specifics, especially during a presidential campaign, has polarized the debate," he said of the program that McCain called "an absolute disgrace [that's] got to be fixed."

Will he contrast his plan to that of his opponent? "Sen. McCain believes this is so important that we do not politicize this debate during an election season."

What, then, is the plan? There doesn't appear to be a page dedicated to it on the McCain website, though some details can be gleaned from the page dedicated to his plan to balance the budget by 2013:

"John McCain will fight to save the future of Social Security, and he believes that we may meet our obligations to the retirees of today and the future without raising taxes. John McCain supports supplementing the current Social Security system with personal accounts — but not as a substitute for addressing benefit promises that cannot be kept."

Elsewhere, though, he's talked down private accounts, saying only that "workers ought to have the latitude to take a small amount of their own taxes, of their own money — it's not somebody else's money — and put it into an account with their name on it, a very small amount." And on an appearance last Sunday on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," he told the host that "everything," specifically including Obama's tax hike, "is on the table."

To be sure, Obama's Social Security plan has holes still to be filled, and the McCain camp has lately been charging the Democrat with changing the nuances of his plan to better suit his current political needs. The Obama campaign, which denies the charge while also saying the specifics would have to be worked out in conjunction with Congress, notes that it has a "specific strategy" — an inversion of the usual campaign dynamic in which the trailing candidate usually introduces policy plans first, and in more detail.

"He has not offered very much in specifics that I have seen," Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said about McCain's Social Security plan.

Riedl, however, was nonplussed by Obama's level of detail when it comes to spending programs.

"Obama's website has page after page after page of very specific [entitlement] increases, specifically within Medicare. It doesn't take political courage to specify the goodies you're going to offer voters."

"You can't judge campaign numbers the same way you'd judge a president's budget," said Bixby. But he added that the McCain campaign's budget proposals — including a promise to balance the budget by 2013 — were notably short on specifics and often didn't appear to add up.

Even many of the economists listed on McCain's site endorsing his budget plan stressed they were agreeing more to the principles of lowering taxes and cutting federal spending than to the specifics, such as they were.

"The McCain goal is quite responsible," said Bixby. "But I can't see any way he could get there under the policies they've been proposing. There's a disconnect there."


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