George H.W. Bush’s "no new taxes" pledge was a watershed moment for me. It was an idiotic thing for a reasonably bright man who knew better to say, and we know why he said it, right? To charm the Reagan revolutionaries, who might otherwise have listened to all that "wimp factor" talk.
But it was more than that to me. It caused me to become permanently disenchanted with campaign promises in general. No one knows what kinds of decisions he will face in office. There is something very phony about pretending to know, and presuming to predict what you will do. You end up with such absurdities as the latest George Bush spouting against nation-building, then spending most of his time in office trying to do just that (although botching it badly enough, for most of that time, to convince us he was never that into it).
This idea developed further as I moved from news to editorial in the early ’90s. News is about "What did he say; what did he do; what did they other guy do; did their actions match their words?" and other stuff that just makes me tired now. I began to think more about what candidates, and far more importantly, office-holders should do. I thought more and more about the nature of representative democracy, and came to appreciate the system more deeply. And the more I thought about it, the more I came to appreciate character over specific policy proposals. I think our system works best when we elect a candidate we trust to make good decisions come what may. I care less about the specifics of policy proposals (which in most cases will never become reality in that form), and more about the quality of the individual proposing them. Past actions count a lot. So do words, in the sense that they reveal the kind of person the candidate is. The fact that a candidate is the kind of person who would want to do a certain thing will matter more than the specifics. So would the intangible qualities revealed in the way the candidate communicates his or her ideas. For that reason, the fact that Obama speaks of approaching challenges as one nation, and is able to sell that approach to voters, contrasted against Sen. Clinton’s world view of life as a constant struggle against Republicans, matter more to me than the specifics of, say, their respective health care plans. If their health care plans were polar opposites, it would mean something. But they’re not, and I don’t care to quibble over them. This approach can be extremely frustrating to such people as today’s caller.
It does make a difference to me when a candidate lacks a serious proposal to address health care. I criticized John McCain on this point several months back. But as important as this issue is to me, it’s not a make-or-break one in considering the presidency. Truth is, no candidate but Dennis Kucinich wants to do what I want to do on the issue — and Rep. Kucinich cancels that out by putting me off on other issues. Among the Republicans, Mitt Romney probably came the closest to wanting to do anything good — but that wasn’t nearly enough, and it didn’t cancel the reasons NOT to support Romney. (Biggest reason? Rather than run as a guy who’d done something smart on health care in Massachusetts, he tried to pander to every impulse to be found in his party, and tried to get ahead by pulling other candidates down. Character.)
This brings us to what John McCain said this week: "No new taxes." This was a reprehensible thing to say. I know McCain is a national-security guy and just isn’t into the stuff that the anti-tax part of his party obsess over. That’s one of many things I like about him. But that doesn’t excuse him from throwing them a bone to this extent, even if he did it so badly that it wasn’t convincing (as Nicholas Kristof says, "he is abysmal at pandering").
Now let’s pause for a moment to make sure you understand what I’m saying. The tax haters don’t understand why I say it’s inexcusable to say, before you’re even in office, "No new taxes." That’s because they think the only thing to do with a tax — ever, under any circumstances — is to cut it, and they think anyone who doesn’t agree with their extreme must be their extreme polar opposite, which to them means that person, in one of their favorite phrases, "never saw a tax he didn’t like." They really say things like that. It doesn’t bother them a bit that such accusations are insupportable, and that in fact evidence exists to the contrary. Their world view is just that simple, and just that wrong.
McCain’s world view is not that simple, and therefore it is profoundly wrong for him to say what he said, even if he just said it to shut them up so we can talk about more important things (understandable, but still not excusable). Perhaps he believes that there never will be a need during a McCain presidency to raise a tax, so what’s the harm?
Here’s the harm: Let me put it in terms that he might understand, because they would touch more closely upon his own deeply held values. Think how stupid, how grossly irresponsible, it would be for the man who would be commander in chief to say, "I will never take military action" in office. See what I’m saying? You might like to think you’d never have to send another soldier into harm’s way, and you might want voters to know you’re the kind of guy who likes to think that. Perfectly understandable. But perfectly wrong. The would-be commander in chief of the world’s one superpower just can’t take force off the table like that.
Mind you, this is not a perfect comparison — a president has greater leeway in taking military action than he does in making tax policy (properly speaking, the purview of Congress; all the president can do is make non-binding proposals or wield the blunt instrument of the veto — he can’t even veto line items). But my point is that the thing that’s wrong here is not the policy question itself. Peace is a fine thing. Not raising taxes is a fine thing.
But you cannot know what future situations will call for, and it’s wrong to try to tie your hands in advance. And it’s particularly wrong to do it to win votes.
It’s not the policy; it’s the character. And saying "no new taxes" this way places a stain upon John McCain’s. (It also makes him look desperate; if he’ll say that to appease the extremists, would he actually consider such a disastrous choice as Mark Sanford for veep? It was the desperation and the irresponsibility in this statement on taxes that caused me actually to worry about something I had dismissed as merely ridiculous before.)
Does the stain disqualify him? Not in my eyes. His virtues far outweigh this sin. And consider that the pandering, hands-tying statements that Sens. Barack and Clinton routinely make regarding Iraq are far more egregious. I am somewhat reassured to believe that both of them know better, but it doesn’t make me think more of their characters.
Nor does it cause me to dismiss them altogether — particularly not Obama, whose character seems so much better suited to the office than Mrs. Clinton’s.
All of us are stained; no one is qualified to throw the first stone. But I do pick up these stones as I find them, and place them on the balance. As I weigh them, I’m still very glad we endorsed John McCain and Barack Obama. The one perfect guy isn’t actually running.