John McCain's campaign has released a repackaged "economic plan," which will be the focus of a series of events this week.
I put the term in quotes because it's not so much a "plan" as a hodge-podge of McCain's domestic policy agenda, and it's less about the economy than about the candidate's decision to re-embrace a pledge -- abandoned in April -- to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term.
In fact, the economic and fiscal implications of McCain's "plan" are inextricably entwined, since most of his concrete budget savings depend on highly dubious and very ideological assumptions about the impact of tax cuts on growth, of pro-oil-and-nuke policies on energy costs, and most of all, of subsidies for individual health insurance purchases on health care costs. Moreover, even a cursory glance at the fiscal math of McCain's plan shows a vast number of "magic asterisks" -- vague but savings-rich goals trucked up as proposals, ranging from nondefense budget freezes and "comprehensive reviews" of federal programs to some sort of latter-day peace dividend contingent on "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there's one fundamental aspect of McCain's "plan" that ought to be drawing the most immediate attention: nearly all of it would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Congress that he will definitely face should he be elected president. Barring some wildly unlikely change in the political winds, Democrats will increase their margins in both Houses of Congress, perhaps significantly, as even the most spin-happy Republicans admit. The idea that congressional Democrats are going to even consider health care, energy, or "entitlement reform" policies that are increasingly hard to distinguish from those of George W. Bush is laughable.
And that simple reality illustrates the enduring dilemma of the McCain candidacy. He needs an "economic plan" right now in order to deal with the strong impression that his national-security-and-character focused message thinly disguises Bush-style cluelessness or indifference about Americans' economic anxieties. But the overarching thrust of his "plan," and most of the details, appear focused on pleasing conservatives who have convinced themselves that the political disaster of the Bush presidency is mainly attributable to the incumbent's insufficient fidelity to The True Cause, particularly in terms of fiscal policy.
So here we are in July of 2008, and John McCain's still struggling to consolidate his electoral "base," and devoting much of his domestic policy agenda to that effort. Should he somehow win in November, his administration would provide an acid test of the theory that Americans love gridlock.