Clearly not every tax-cut enthusiast was thrilled by John McCain's speech yesterday to CPAC. "The wilderness years" was how one self-described "pro growth" conservative described the next presidential term to me, not differentiating between a McCain, Clinton, or Obama administration. Still, McCain surely did some good in bringing around his skeptics, given other post-speech conversations I had (though Sen. Tom Coburn's introduction of McCain may been a more persuasive sales job than anything McCain himself said). This part seemed go over particularly well:
Often elections in this country are fought within the margins of small differences. This one will not be. We are arguing about hugely consequential things. Whomever the Democrats nominate, they would govern this country in a way that will, in my opinion, take this country backward to the days when government felt empowered to take from us our freedom to decide for ourselves the course and quality of our lives; to substitute the muddled judgment of large and expanding federal bureaucracies for the common sense and values of the American people; to the timidity and wishful thinking of a time when we averted our eyes from terrible threats to our security that were so plainly gathering strength abroad.
But all those good words don't mean McCain can't still enrage his critics on the right. Here is how McCain could easily pull defeat from the jaws of victory:
1) Pick Mike Huckabee as his veep. McCain had barely left the room at the conservative conference when the free-market loving Club for Growth had blasted off an E-mail declaring that "an economic liberal like Mike Huckabee will be unacceptable to a majority of Republicans. Rather, Senator McCain will need to pick a vice-presidential candidate who embodies the Republican belief...in the power of free enterprise to advance prosperity for all Americans." South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, on the other hand, would be a popular pick, as would Coburn.
2) Fail to rule out a Social Security tax increase. McCain favors a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a fix to the ailing system, something along the lines of the Greenspan commission in 1983 that advocated higher payroll taxes and pushing back the retirement age to gain Social Security a bit more time before it went bust. Of course, there already are hundreds of reform plans floating around D.C. that he could pick from. The math is pretty easy: Reduce future benefit increases, raise payroll taxes, or both. (Faster economic growth would also certainly help, though it's not a complete solution.) The prospect of President McCain agreeing to a Social Security tax increase is a front-and-center fear of many free-marketeers.
3) Fail to rule out "green taxes": McCain favors a cap-and-trade system to deal with the carbon emissions that, many scientists theorize, cause global warming. But that is a tax of sorts, just like a regulation or tariff. (The Congressional Budget Office has said as much.) A much better way to go, say some conservatives like economist and former Romney economic adviser Greg Mankiw, would be a simple carbon tax offset by lower income or payroll taxes. It would change people's behavior without reducing the economic growth necessary to create the future technologies needed to combat supposed climate change as well as make America energy independent.