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Introduction by John Podesta
“Electing McCain will be, in essence…a third term” for the Bush agenda, John Podesta told the audience at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on Monday. Podesta, President and CEO of CAPAF, introduced the program “McCain U,” which critically evaluated presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) policy proposals.
The half-day seminar was a product of the Hyde Park Project, a new policy “war room” dedicated to making the progressive case in today’s ideological debate. The seminar included four panel discussions on the economic, health care, national security, and energy policies of McCain, each preceded by a “McCain 101” summary of the candidate’s proposals in the area.
Panel I: McCain’s Economic Policy
“What’s rather stunning about Sen. McCain’s proposals…is their magnitude, and the magnitude of the tax relief that is devoted solely to people at the very top,” Gene Sperling, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, told the audience. Sperling was a participant in the economic panel, which was moderated by Robert Gordon, also a Senior Fellow at CAPAF, and included Jared Bernstein, Director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute. Prior to the panel, James Kvaal, Domestic Policy Advisor for CAPAF, provided an overview of McCain’s economic plan.
The panelists focused on the president’s influence on the distribution of wealth and national regulatory policies. Referring to McCain’s economic policy, Sperling said, “I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like that.”
Sperling pointed out that all major presidential candidates from both parties support extending the Bush tax cuts for people earning under $250,000, but McCain supports an additional $110 billion in tax cuts for those with incomes above that amount. Additionally, McCain has proposed corporate tax cuts of over $175 billion. “The difference between him and most progressive candidates…is about $300 billion per year,” said Sperling.
The panelists agreed that McCain’s plan to offset these tax cuts by eliminating earmarks and holding down spending was unrealistic, with Bernstein comparing cutting earmarks to “bringing a thimble to a crater.” “This notion that we can hold the line on spending is a complete abstraction,” said Bernstein. To offset tax cuts, “you’re going to have to go after the entitlements, and that’s actually what worries me the most.”
Because they favor the wealthy, the Bush and McCain tax plans “exacerbate the inequalities in the system,” Bernstein said. Sperling added, “corporate profits have not been a problem. The problem has been wages and jobs.” He suggested focusing on creating jobs in the United States and ensuring effective regulation of the economy when crafting tax policy.
Panelists pointed to the housing crisis as evidence of excesses in the private market and the need for government oversight. Bernstein said that such excesses can be “squeezed out of the system” with good policies, but noted that McCain “hasn’t said nearly enough about the kind of regulation we need in financial markets.”
Panel II: McCain’s Health Care Policy
“Overall, the goal is not universal coverage, it’s cost containment,” Peter Harbage said while introducing McCain’s health care plan. Harbage, Health Care Policy Advisor at CAPAF, described how McCain’s plan would allow a $5,000 tax credit for families and $2,500 for individuals with which they could purchase private health insurance and establish health savings accounts.
Harbage noted, however, that the tax credit would grow at the rate of inflation, rather than at the higher rate of health care cost increases. He also said that McCain would allow the sale of health insurance across state lines. Currently, states regulate insurance within their borders.
Jeanne Lambrew, Senior Fellow at CAPAF, moderated the discussion on health care. Panelists included Karen Davenport, Director of Health Policy for CAPAF; Karen Pollitz, Director of the Health Policy Institute at Georgetown University; and Harbage, filling in for Elizabeth Edwards, also a Senior Fellow at CAPAF.
Pollitz set the framework for the discussion by arguing that a successful policy must make health care available, bring down costs, and provide adequate coverage, all the time. She noted that health care costs are unevenly distributed, and “the sickest 5 percent account for half of all spending.” Pollitz said that a competitive insurance industry will always try to limit insurance for people when they are sick, so “the only way to make a competitive insurance market cover people when they are sick is to regulate it.”
She criticized McCain’s health care plan for deregulating health care and removing tax credits for job-based coverage, although such coverage currently provides health insurance to many Americans. Pollitz further faulted McCain’s plan for allowing insurance companies to choose the state in which they are regulated, and therefore choose which set of regulations apply to them.
Panelists agreed with Davenport when she commented, “for people with disabilities or chronic disease, those tax credits are going to be inadequate” to pay for their insurance. McCain’s proposal would establish “Guaranteed Access Programs,” through which the federal government would work with states to provide coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. Pollitz noted, however, that the $10 billion McCain proposes to spend on these programs is only about 1 percent of the funding necessary to provide health care to this population.
Panelists also agreed that McCain’s health care plan would benefit insurance companies. “One of the top groups that would benefit from this plan is the insurance industry itself,” remarked Harbage. “As a factual matter, the individual market is more lucrative for insurers than the group market,” he said. Davenport noted, “it’s a fallacy to think that individuals are going to have the kind of bargaining power they need to find the insurance policies that meet their needs.” “It’s called consumer choice, it’s really insurance company choice,” said Pollitz. “I think that people want good choices, and this plan offers them a lot of bad choices…and when they get sick, no choices at all.”
Panel III: McCain’s Foreign Policy
“McCain has been advocating a neoconservative agenda since before 9/11, and he’s still advocating that agenda today…that’s why when McCain jokes about ‘bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran’ many of us aren’t laughing,” said Faiz Shakir, Research Director at CAPAF, who provided “McCain 101” on national security.
The national security panel included Ken Gude, Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at CAPAF; Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at CAPAF; and Gayle Smith, also a Senior Fellow at CAPAF. The panel was moderated by Rand Beers, president and founder of the National Security Network.
Panelists criticized McCain for having a narrow foreign policy that focused on using force to combat terrorism to the exclusion of other strategies and issues. “I don’t think he’s an expert on national security,” said Smith, who faulted McCain’s focus on terrorism as a “one-dimensional” approach to national security.
By dismissing international organizations and trying to destroy profoundly ideological networks by force, Smith said, McCain would reinforce the “with us or against us” mindset of the Bush administration and damage America’s standing in the international community. McCain is “trying to conflate national security with the willingness to use force,” she noted. She also argued that McCain has no plan to deal with the 50 weakened or failing states in the world.
Katulis emphasized the parallels between McCain and President Bush, and argued, “it’s a different century, and I think the last 6 or 7 years have demonstrated that we need a new approach…John McCain isn’t offering that.” Katulis said that McCain’s use of words like “freedom” and “liberty” mask the fact that “there’s a lot that does not substantively add up in John McCain’s record on national security…freedom is just another word for not having a national security strategy.” McCain’s Iraq policy is also confused, said Katulis. “He defines an end state but doesn’t actually discuss how you get there.”
Gude applauded McCain for opposing President Bush on the issue of detainee treatment, but questioned McCain’s devotion to proper treatment of detainees after McCain criticized a recent Supreme Court decision granting certain rights to Guantanamo Bay inmates as “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” “It’s very important when you’re using [words like] freedom and democracy…that your own positions actually live up to that principle,” cautioned Gude.
Panel IV: McCain’s Energy Policy
“George Bush cannot be the bar against which we measure John McCain,” argued Navin Nayak of the League of Conservation Voters. Nayak provided “McCain 101” for the final panel of the day on energy policy. The panel included Joseph Romm and Bracken Hendricks, both Senior Fellows at CAPAF, and Nayak, who emphasized that while McCain’s energy policies look good compared to President Bush, voters must look at McCain’s policies more broadly.
Like Bush, Nayak said, McCain opposes renewable energy, as evidenced by his votes against a renewable electricity standard and tax credits for renewable energy. Nayak also criticized McCain for voting against increasing automobile fuel efficiency, his advisors’ ties to the oil and gas industries, and the fact that McCain’s plan to combat global warming only calls for 60 percent reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050.
Romm criticized McCain for what he called a “placebo energy policy,” which would do nothing to resolve the energy crisis, but would still make people feel better. Similarly, Hendricks criticized McCain for supporting energy policies which even McCain acknowledged would only have a “psychological” effect. Attacking McCain’s support of a gas tax holiday, Romm said, “the important thing to realize about the gas tax holiday is that it’s just a holiday for gas and oil companies.” Romm also argued that allowing offshore drilling in sensitive costal areas, as McCain has proposed, would have no effect on oil prices.
Romm also attacked McCain’s plan to offer $300 million to the inventor of cheaper, more efficient batteries that could make plug-in hybrids more efficient. “It is completely pointless for the federal government to offer $300 million…there’s no way you could actually award this prize. Nobody invents anything that is much cheaper than existing technology today. That only occurs when you sell a million units a year…this is a complete and utter gimmick,” he said.
Panelists criticized McCain’s plan to build more nuclear power plants for a number of reasons. Nayak pointed out that building nuclear plants is expensive, and that the electricity generated by such plants would also be expensive in the absence of government subsidies. Romm said that providing such subsidies to a mature technology like nuclear energy would be a poor choice, and instead suggested subsidies for alternatives like wind and solar power. He also noted the difficulties in disposing of the radioactive waste that is a byproduct of nuclear power.
“[McCain is] trying to simultaneously appeal to conservatives and moderates” by adopting ambiguous and ultimately ineffective positions, said Romm.
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