THERE IS a serious debate to be had in this presidential campaign about the fundamentally different tax policies of Barack Obama and John McCain. Then there is the phony, misleading and at times outright dishonest debate that the McCain campaign has been waging -- most recently with a television ad.
The two candidates have very different positions on taxes. Mr. Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and cut them substantially for low- and middle-income taxpayers. He would cut taxes for more households, and by a larger amount, than Mr. McCain, who would give the greatest benefits to wealthy households and corporations.
These are disagreements rooted in divergent views about the role of tax policy: the importance of reducing inequality versus the importance of encouraging investment. Mr. Obama has the wiser and more fiscally responsible of the plans, on balance, but this is by no means a one-sided debate between evil, tycoon-hugging Republicans and good-hearted Democrats. Higher taxes do have consequences for the behavior of both individuals and corporations. Listening to the candidates debate and defend their actual plans would be a useful exercise.
Instead, the McCain campaign insists on completely misrepresenting Mr. Obama's plan. The ad opens with the Obama-as-celebrity theme -- "Celebrities don't have to worry about family budgets, but we sure do," says the female announcer. "We're paying more for food and gas, making it harder to save for college, retirement." Then she sticks it to him: "Obama's solution? Higher taxes, called 'a recipe for economic disaster.' He's ready to raise your taxes but not ready to lead."
The facts? The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that the Obama plan would give households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution an average tax cut of 5.5 percent of income ($567) in 2009, while those in the middle fifth would get an average cut of 2.6 percent of income ($1,118). "Your taxes" would go up, yes -- but not if you're someone who is sweating higher gas prices. By contrast, Mr. McCain's tax plan would give those in the bottom fifth of income an average tax cut of $21 in 2009. The middle fifth would get $325 -- less than a third of the Obama cut. The wealthiest taxpayers make out terrifically.
The country can't afford the tax cuts either man is promising, although Mr. McCain's approach is by far the more costly. We don't expect either side to admit that. But neither side should get to outright lie about its opponent's positions, either.