On Taxes, Less-Than-Straight Talk

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, January 14, 2008

Two days before his decisive victory in New Hampshire, John McCain was asked by Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press": "Do you believe that voting against the Bush tax cuts was a mistake?" Sen. McCain replied quickly, "Of course not." He next said I was wrong when I wrote, "McCain has admitted to me that those tax votes were a mistake." In fact, what he actually told me amounted to admitting error.

Thus has McCain, campaigning now, as he did in 2000, as the candidate of "straight talk," made trouble for himself by taking a circuitous position on taxes. While he favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent, he defends twice voting against them. The old war hero is stubborn, reluctant to admit either error or defeat.

Mitt Romney, trying to stop McCain in Michigan on Tuesday and South Carolina on Saturday, e-mailed a broadside last week ("Straight Talk Detour") listing McCain's record of opposition to President Bush's tax cuts. Democrats watch with keen anticipation. They contemplate feasting on a lame-duck Republican pleading for continuation of a tax program that his party's nominee branded as a mistake to pass.

In my Dec. 27 column, which projected McCain as the last man standing for the Republican presidential nomination after being given up for dead, I wrote that McCain "has admitted to me" that his votes against tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 were a mistake. When Russert cited that column to McCain on Jan. 5, the senator replied dismissively: "I can't account for Bob Novak's comments or anybody else's comments. I know what I've said on the record thousands of times."

I caught up with McCain later that Sunday after a town meeting in Salem, N.H. I told him I based what I wrote on what he told me over breakfast in the Senate dining room on Jan. 31, 2007. I said that all reporters make mistakes and that I would check my transcript of our conversation when I returned to Washington, then set the matter straight.

He was cordial to me, as always, in contrast to his demeanor on "Meet the Press." He told me not to bother about a correction: "I may have misspoke to you, but I've expressed my view many times."

In contesting for the 2000 nomination, McCain sounded more like Teddy Kennedy than Jack Kemp in decrying Bush's proposed "tax relief" for "the richest 1 percent in America." That attracted independents and even Democrats but not enough Republican voters to catch Bush. When I had breakfast with McCain nearly a year ago, he was -- albeit temporarily -- the Republican establishment's choice to lead a party in which tax reduction is an immutable article of faith.

McCain told me: "I may have changed some of my views. You learn over 24 years." Explaining then, as he does not now, that he opposed Bush's tax cuts because there was "no commensurate restraint in spending," he said, "I am glad the tax cuts had the effect they did." The question of why he did not leave it at that goes to the nature of John McCain, which makes him both frustrating and magnetic.

So, did McCain regret his no votes? He replied, "I can't tell you that I cast exactly right votes over the years." Based on more than half a century talking to politicians, I took that as a yes. He also advocates making the tax cuts permanent because letting them lapse would constitute a tax increase, which he opposes.

Shortly after New Hampshire voted, a national Democratic Party leader telephoned me. Asking that our conversation remain confidential, he said he considers McCain the only electable Republican in what looms as a Democratic 2008 and, indeed, the only one capable of defeating either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But, this Democrat asked, how can McCain explain and defend his votes against tax cuts the Republican president and Republicans in Congress are trying to make permanent?

The answer to that would be for McCain to publicly repeat what he told me over breakfast. But that probably would not be John McCain.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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