McCain and Bush

June 17, 2008

Is McCain Like Bush? It Depends on the Issue

WASHINGTON — The Democrats like to say that electing Senator John McCain would usher in the third term of George W. Bush, and they do not mean it as a compliment. The Republicans counter that calling the senator “McBush” is political spin and that Mr. McCain is his own man.

A look at Mr. McCain’s 25-year record in the House and Senate, his 2008 campaign positions and his major speeches over the last three months indicates that on big-ticket issues — the economy, support for continuing the Iraq war, health care — his stances are indeed similar to Mr. Bush’s brand of conservatism. Mr. McCain’s positions are nearly identical to the president’s on abortion and the types of judges he says he would appoint to the courts.

On the environment, American diplomacy and nuclear proliferation, Mr. McCain has strikingly different views from Mr. Bush, and while he shares the president’s goals in Iraq, he was at times an outspoken critic of the way the war was managed.

The disparities between the two are murkier on other issues. On immigration, Mr. McCain started out with Mr. Bush — at odds with the Republican mainstream — by favoring a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, then backed off and emphasized the border-security-first approach favored by a majority of his party.

When it comes to dealing with terrorism suspects, Mr. McCain has supported imposing tighter rules than favored by the administration on the use of harsh interrogation techniques, but has consistently been with the president on limiting the legal rights of Guantánamo detainees. In one indicator that his view of executive power is moving closer to that of Mr. Bush, his campaign has recently signaled that he believes it was constitutional for the president to authorize wiretaps without warrants to monitor Americans’ international phone calls and e-mail.

Mr. McCain has reversed himself on some issues — most notably, embracing the Bush tax cuts now after deriding them initially as fiscally risky and excessively skewed to the wealthy — and continues to adjust his positions on others. On Monday, he said he continued to oppose opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, leaving him at odds with the White House and most of his party, but said he favored giving states more flexibility to decide whether to explore for oil off their coasts.

On balance, the McCain campaign has sought to emphasize the differences between Mr. McCain and the unpopular Mr. Bush rather than the similarities.

“In the last 10 years, he’s been an independent voice for what he thinks is in his country’s best interest,” said Mark Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers. “Sometimes it’s brought him into conflict with members of his party and with the president. The Democrats know that.”

Yet while it would be hard to categorize him as a doctrinaire Republican or conservative, Mr. McCain appears to have ceded some of his carefully cultivated reputation as a maverick.

In a CBS News poll two weeks ago, 43 percent of registered voters said they believed he would continue Mr. Bush’s policies, and 21 percent said he would be more conservative in his policies than Mr. Bush. Twenty-eight percent said he would be less conservative than Mr. Bush.

Presidencies are about more than policies, of course, and Mr. McCain would bring a different style, background and world view to the White House should he be elected in November.

Although he once held very different views, Mr. McCain’s biggest similarity to Mr. Bush now is on the economy. Not only does the senator now support making permanent the large Bush tax cuts he once opposed — the $1.35 trillion tax reduction of 2001 and the $320 billion tax cut of 2003 — but he has proposed four major new tax cuts of his own.

Democrats say that those four proposed cuts — a reduction in the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent, immediate tax breaks for corporate investment, a repeal of the alternative minimum tax and doubling the value of exemptions for dependents to $7,000 from $3,500 — are more regressive than Mr. Bush’s tax cuts because they favor the rich more disproportionately than the president’s reductions did. Mr. McCain’s advisers said his plan would help stimulate job creation by reducing taxes on small businesses, especially those that pay taxes at the personal income tax rate, and would be part of a fiscal plan that would also emphasize reining in the growth of government spending far more than Mr. Bush did.

On health care, Mr. McCain has a market-oriented model similar to the one that Mr. Bush proposed to little effect in 2007. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain would shift the emphasis from insurance provided by employers to insurance bought by individuals, and would offer a tax benefit for families to do so.

“In general, they’re much more similar than different,” said Drew Altman, the president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research group. “In terms of their goals, they’re more focused on making the market more efficient than in expanding coverage.”

Mr. McCain’s proposal, however, is more progressive in that it offers a refundable credit of $5,000 to families to buy their own insurance, whether or not they pay taxes — in effect, cash. Although experts have questioned whether the $5,000 tax credit would cover the cost of private insurance, they generally say that Mr. Bush’s plan, which offered a $15,000 tax deduction for families buying their own insurance, was more valuable to higher-income people.

On the Iraq war, Mr. McCain has been one of the president’s biggest defenders of its stated rationale: saving the world from Saddam Hussein. Yet he was also an early advocate of increasing troop levels at a time when Mr. Bush was resistant, and was withering, from 2004 on, about Donald H. Rumsfeld, then defense secretary, and what Mr. McCain called Mr. Rumsfeld’s “whack a mole” strategy of moving American troops from one violence-plagued part of Iraq to another.

Like Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain has steadfastly refused to set dates for withdrawals of troops and envisions a long-term American presence in the country. But last month, in the general election battleground state of Ohio, Mr. McCain did a semantic dance and said he expected that most American troops would be home from Iraq by 2013.

On abortion, Mr. McCain has long been opposed, and is in fact more explicit than the president in his opposition to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. Although Mr. Bush has spoken about changing American “hearts and minds” to build a “culture of life,” Mr. McCain has said directly, in South Carolina in 2007, that Roe v. Wade “should be overturned.”

On judges, Mr. McCain has strongly embraced the judicial philosophy of Mr. Bush and vowed to appoint conservative judges in the mold of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

On gay rights, Mr. McCain voted against a proposed constitutional amendment backed by Mr. Bush banning same-sex marriage, saying that it should be up to the states. Then in 2006, he made it clear how he thought his home state, Arizona, should decide: Mr. McCain appeared in a television commercial in support of a state amendment, which ultimately failed, to ban same-sex marriages.

Perhaps Mr. McCain’s biggest departure from the president is on climate change. Mr. McCain has called for mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, unlike Mr. Bush, who says such limits would be bad for the economy. Mr. McCain also supports a “cap and trade” system in which power plants and other polluters could meet limits on heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide by either reducing emissions on their own or by buying credits from more efficient producers.

Mr. McCain, who has a mixed record on the environment in the Senate — he has missed votes on toughening fuel economy standards and has opposed tax breaks meant to encourage alternative energy — has nonetheless tried to highlight what he considers his stark environmental divide with Mr. Bush.

“There is a longstanding, significant, deep, strong difference on this issue between myself and the administration,” Mr. McCain said last month.

On diplomacy, Mr. McCain has regularly distanced himself from the go-it-alone unilateralism of the Bush administration.

“We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to,” Mr. McCain said in a major foreign policy address in Los Angeles in late March. “We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new compact.”

In the same vein, Mr. McCain has significantly broken with Mr. Bush on nuclear security policy. Unlike the president, he supports a legally binding accord between the United States and Russia on limiting nuclear weapons, the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, a strengthening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, increased financing for the International Atomic Energy Agency and nuclear talks with China.

On Iran and North Korea, the two nations whose nuclear programs will present the next president with a tough set of options, Mr. McCain has allied himself with the Bush administration. He would refuse to engage in unconditional diplomacy with Iran and would continue to maintain contact with North Korea, primarily through multilateral talks. He has insisted, however, that the United States be able to verify effectively any agreement in which North Korea promises to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Courtesy: New York Times

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