For McCain, it's all about earmarks

At the second presidential debate, John McCain ramps up the earmarks rhetoric. But that's not really the federal government's biggest budget problem.

Published October 8, 2008 1:53AM (EDT)

A week and a half ago, you heard John McCain talk about the $1 million in earmarks Barack Obama has requested for every day he's been in the Senate. Tonight, he came with specifics.

"He voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork barrel earmark projects, including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois," McCain said. And he dropped the joke about bear DNA that flopped at the first debate (in part because he flubbed the delivery, in part because the joke's not that funny).

No matter how he brings the earmark attacks, though, McCain makes it seem like the single biggest problem facing the U.S. government is cutting wasteful earmarks. The issue fits into his Manichean view of politics -- you're either honorable or you're not -- and it puts McCain firmly on the side fighting what he sees as corruption.

But the fact is, earmarks account for only $16 billion out of a $2 trillion federal budget. Even if McCain wrung every single one out of the budget and locked up the lawmakers who requested them, problems with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and, oh, nearly every other big-ticket item would still exist. As Tom Schaller pointed out recently, McCain may just be hoping voters don't notice the difference between $3 million for an overhead projector and $3 billion every week on the Iraq war -- million, billion, it's all the same thing, right?

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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