The List: McCain’s 10 Worst Ideas

Last week, FP roasted Barack Obama’s 10 worst ideas. Now, it’s John McCain on the hot seat.

Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Boris Streubel/Getty Images

Creating a League of Democracies

What he said:We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compacta League of Democraciesthat can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests. Speech at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, March 26, 2008

Why its a bad idea: As Thomas Carothers argues in the July/August issue of FP, [T]he idea that democracies naturally align is only half right and risks being a dangerous oversimplification. Carothers and other critics have noted that such a league might further weaken the United Nations. For the most part, world leaders have been cool to the idea, and rightfully so. A previous iteration, the little-known Community of Democracies, founded in 2000, has stumbled into irrelevance.


Calling for a Gas-Tax Holiday

What he said: I propose that the federal government suspend all taxes on gasoline now paid by the American peoplefrom Memorial Day to Labor Day of this year. The effect will be an immediate economic stimulustaking a few dollars off the price of a tank of gas every time a family, a farmer, or trucker stops to fill up. Speech at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa., April 15, 2008

Why its a bad idea: Pick your poison. Many (including Dick Cheney) predict that such a holiday would have little effect, as oil companies would just pocket the difference. Ditching the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gas tax and 24.4-cents-a-gallon diesel tax would deprive the already-strapped Highway Trust Fund, which relies on gas-tax revenues to fund transportation projects, of cash. Economists and environmentalists also widely deride the proposal, which would boost demand and therefore quickly drive prices back up. When youre in a hole, its best to stop digging.


Requiring a Three-Fifths Majority to Raise Taxes

What he said: John McCain believes it should require a 3/5 majority vote in Congress to raise taxes. Press release, Dec. 18, 2007

Why its a bad idea: States that have enacted supermajority requirements for tax increases havent exactly entered the pantheon of budgetary glory. Take California, which requires approval from two thirds of the state legislature to raise taxes. The Golden State has recently struggled to raise revenuesand has witnessed an increase in taxes disguised as fees as a result. Raising taxes should be like the use of force in foreign policythe last resort, yes, but you never want to take any option off the table.

David McNew/Getty Images

Flip-flopping on Immigration

What he said: I understand why you would call it a, quote, shift. I say it is a lesson learned about what the American peoples priorities are. And their priority is to secure the borders. Remarks to reporters in Simpsonville, S.C., Nov. 3, 2007

Why its a bad idea: Immigration was once an issue where McCain could justifiably claim to be a maverick, unafraid to buck party orthodoxy and popular opinion. The Arizona senator even partnered with Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2005 to craft a bipartisan bill that would both give illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship and boost security at the U.S.-Mexico border. But with his poll numbers plummeting during the Republican primary, McCain began trumpeting the party line of securing the borders first. The problem is, without providing more opportunities for legal immigration or taking steps to build up the Mexican economy, taller fences and more guards will only address the symptoms, not the ultimate causes of illegal immigration.

David McNew/Getty Images

Drilling Our Way Out of the Oil Crisis

What he said: Gas prices are through the roof. Energy costs have seeped into our grocery bills, making it more expensive to feed our families. … It is time for America to get serious about energy independence, and that means we need to start drilling offshore at advanced oil rigs like this. Press conference on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, Aug. 19, 2008

Why its a bad idea: Even ignoring potential environmental impacts, lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling would make little difference for consumers. According to the governments own Energy Information Administration, production of the new supplies would not even begin until 2017 and would have little effect on what Americans pay at the pump anywayjust a few cents a gallon by 2030 under the best-case scenario. More to the point, its a strategy of yesteryear. As columnist Thomas Friedman put it in a recent interview with FP, When I hear McCain pounding the table for drill, drill, drill, it reminds me of someone pounding the table for IBM Selectric typewriters on the eve of the IT revolution.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Balancing the Budget through Victory in the War on Terror

What he said: The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction. Jobs for America: The McCain Economic Plan, released July 7, 2008

Why its a bad idea: The yearly bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is certainly enormous. Yet it still covers less than half of the United States projected $490 billion deficit for 2009. Given the massive tax cuts that McCain also supports, its unclear how his debt-reduction math adds up. McCain opposes a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, yet he feels confident enough to budget for victory by the end of his first term. Afghanistan is getting worse, not better. And as for the fight against Islamic extremists, how does one even define victory? Dont try asking McCain: He doesnt have an answer.


Making the Bush Tax Cuts Permanent

What he said: Weve got to make these tax cuts permanent. We have to, otherwise I think itll have a negative impact on our economy. NBCs Meet the Press, Jan. 27, 2008

Why its a bad idea: You might say McCain was against the $1.35 trillion Bush tax cuts before he was for them. In 2004, he said he opposed them because of the disproportional amount that went to the wealthiest Americans. Now, he says he supports them because the economy is weakening. Yet the tax cuts are more likely to reduce long-term growth than to increase it, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. McCain insists he will restrain spending and eliminate the budget deficit. But McCains budget numbers simply dont add up, and the senators constant hammering on congressional earmarks misses the big picture: Defense and entitlement programs are where most of the fat lies, not in relatively small pork projects such as Alaskas infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Supporting Abstinence-Only Education and the Global Gag Rule

What he said: Asked on the campaign trail if he thought grants for sex education should include instruction on contraception, McCain turned to an aide for help, saying, Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraceptionIm sure Im opposed to government spending on it, Im sure I support the presidents policies on it. The reporter asked, Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV? After a long pause, McCain replied, Youve stumped me. Town hall meeting, Iowa, Mar. 16, 2007

Why its a bad idea: A landmark, 10-year study sponsored by Congress found in 2007 that students in sexual-abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, reported having similar numbers of sexual partners, and first had sex at about the same age, the Chicago Tribune reported. Abstinence-only education is one of the core principles guiding the so-called global gag rule, an executive order passed by President George W. Bush in 2001 that prohibits giving foreign aid to NGOs that offer any kind of counseling on abortion as family planning. McCain voted against repealing the measure in 2005. Critics of the gag rule point to reports showing a shortage of contraceptives, clinic closings, loss of funds for HIV/AIDS education, and a rise in unsafe abortions since it was instituted.


Calling for 45 Nuclear Power Plants

What he said: If I am elected president, I will set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America. Speech in Springfield, Mo., June 18, 2008

Why its a bad idea: There are many good reasons to be skeptical of the widespread new enthusiasm for nuclear power, including its high-and-rising costs, but perhaps the best one is that, as experts Charles Ferguson and Sharon Squassoni explained in 2007, a nuclear renaissance will take too long to have a significant effect on climate change. Moreover, how do we know that 45 is the right number? A drop in the price of alternative fuels could make nuclear plants look like white elephants, the Wall Street Journal noted in May. For someone who likes to extol the virtues of the free market, McCains target sure smacks of socialist planning.


Backing Cap-and-Trade Without a 100 Percent Auction

What he said: We will cap emissions according to specific goals, measuring progress by reference to past carbon emissions. Over time, an increasing fraction of permits for emissions could be supplied by auction, yielding federal revenues that can be put to good use. Speech in Portland, Ore., May 12, 2008

Why its a bad idea: McCains gotten credit for supporting a cap-and-trade system, but his specific proposal is pretty weak. Cap-and-trade systems work by putting a ceiling on carbon emissions, and then allocating permits that give companies the right to pollute a given amount. From an environmental standpoint, it doesnt much matter how you initially distribute the permits, as long as the cap is stringent enough. But most economists think that, unless you first auction these off in a transparent process, youre basically enabling a massive corporate giveaway, raising the likelihood that well-connected corporations or industries will get sweetheart deals, and failing to capture revenue that can pay for other priorities.

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