On MSNBC, John Harwood described Sen. John McCain's apparent willingness to consider raising Social Security taxes -- a reversal from his previously stated position that there would be "no new taxes" in a McCain administration -- as an example of McCain's engaging in "truth-telling" and "candor." Harwood added: "That's the Straight Talk Express, which people got to know so well about John McCain in 2000."
New York Times political writer and CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood described Sen. John McCain's apparent willingness to consider raising Social Security taxes -- a reversal from his previously stated position -- as an example of the candidate engaging in "truth-telling" and "candor." McCain recently backed away from a "no new taxes" pledge by saying "nothing's off the table" in seeking a solution to achieve the long-term solvency of Social Security during the July 27 edition of ABC's This Week. Indeed, after host George Stephanopoulos asked if "payroll taxes are on the table," McCain responded: "There is nothing that's off the table. I have my positions, and I'll articulate them. But nothing's off the table." But while McCain had previously pledged there would be "no new taxes" in a McCain administration, Harwood said of McCain's newfound "candor": "That's the Straight Talk Express, which people got to know so well about John McCain in 2000."
During the July 28 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor David Shuster reported that "John McCain yesterday, as you know, was asked about fixing Social Security and the prospect of raising the payroll tax, and McCain said everything is on the table." Shuster continued: "Well, conservatives are aghast, because that very position by Obama is what Republicans base their charge that Obama will raise taxes. What's been the fallout today for McCain with his conservative base?" Responding to Shuster's question, Harwood asserted that McCain's shift in position "might provide some countervailing help with -- for him in the middle of the electorate, some of those independents he's trying to reach out to, because that's truth-telling from John McCain." Harwood added: "That's the Straight Talk Express, which people got to know so well about John McCain in 2000." Harwood later added: "[I]t's a risky position for John McCain to take politically, especially with a conservative base, but it's also one of candor."
In contrast with Harwood's opinion that McCain's reversal constituted an act of "truth-telling," the Associated Press reported in a July 28 article that McCain "drew a sharp rebuke Monday from conservatives after he signaled an openness to a higher payroll tax for Social Security, contrary to previous vows not to raise taxes of any kind." The report further noted that McCain's apparent flip "drew a strong response Monday from the Club for Growth, a Washington anti-tax group. McCain's comments, the group said in a letter to the Arizona senator, are 'shocking because you have been adamant in your opposition to raising taxes under any circumstances.' "
Further undermining Harwood's assertion that McCain's stated willingness to consider raising Social Security taxes constituted "truth-telling," McCain reportedly backtracked two days later, and in a "bit of political fence-mending" after he "had angered some fiscal conservatives" with his comment, McCain once again vowed not to raise taxes, according to a July 30 article in the Los Angeles Times. From the Times article:
Across the country, in Nevada, Republican John McCain engaged in a similar bit of political fence-mending. Appearing at a town hall meeting in Sparks, he flatly ruled out raising taxes if elected president.
"I think the worst thing that could happen to America in these very tough economic times is to raise someone's taxes," McCain said in response to a question. "I won't do it."
McCain had angered some fiscal conservatives by seeming to suggest in recent interviews that he would consider higher payroll taxes to fund Social Security. The Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, sent an open letter Monday expressing concern about McCain's comments, and the Obama campaign piled on by asserting that McCain had flip-flopped on the question.
The Arizona senator addressed the matter when a small girl in the audience at Reed High School asked him if he would raise taxes as president. He drew whoops and cheers from the audience of several hundred with a one-word response: "No."
Later, at a private fundraiser on the east shore of Lake Tahoe, McCain alluded to that. "Some people say, 'Well, McCain says he wants to sit down and work these issues out,' " he told donors. "Of course I do, but I have a clear record of opposing tax increases, and I'll stand by that record."
From the 4 p.m. ET hour of the July 28 edition of MSNBC Live:
SHUSTER: Now it's time for the focus on the U.S. economy. John McCain was touring an oil field and Barack Obama met with top economic advisers this afternoon, this as the battle heats up over who will be commander in chief of the sagging U.S. economy. Here is some of what we've heard today.
OBAMA [video clip]: -- an energy policy that doesn't just reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but creates millions of new high wage jobs from our investment in renewable sources of energy.
McCAIN [video clip]: Senator Obama opposes offshore drilling. He opposes reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. He -- he -- he opposes storage of spent nuclear fuel, and so he is the Dr. No of the -- America's energy future.
SHUSTER: John Harwood is CNBC's chief Washington correspondent and a political writer for The New York Times, and he joins us from outside where Obama's been meeting with his all-star team of economic advisers today. And John, was -- was Obama simply listening to his advisers, or is he offering specifics as to what he thinks needs to be done to help the economy?
HARWOOD: I just spoke, David, to Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey, former head of Goldman Sachs, the big Wall Street investment firm. He said Barack Obama was purely in listening mode today. Of course he's been running, as you know, David, on a set of tax spending trade policies for months now. He gave no indication he was going to change those policies, but he was going around the room listening to people -- business, labor, the head of Google, you had Bob Rubin, the former Treasury secretary, Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve chairman -- all these people providing input for Barack Obama. And I think part of it was the reassurance that Barack Obama hopes will be conveyed by those presidential-looking images of him sitting around the table, being counseled by these very wise economic figures, David.
SHUSTER: And John, on the other side, John McCain yesterday, as you know, was asked about fixing Social Security and the prospect of raising the payroll tax, and McCain said everything is on the table. Well, conservatives are aghast, because that very position by Obama is what Republicans base their charge that Obama will raise taxes. What's been the fallout today for McCain with his conservative base?
HARWOOD: Well, it's a problem with his conservative base. It might provide some countervailing help with -- for him in the middle of the electorate, some of those independents he's trying to reach out to, because that's truth-telling from John McCain. That's the Straight Talk Express, which people got to know so well about John McCain in 2000, because most people, David, know that if you're really going to solve Social Security, you've got to do something on the spending side, which John McCain has already indicated he is willing to do, and on the tax side. So far Barack Obama has only indicated that he's willing to raise that cap on the payroll tax. He hasn't signaled anything that he's willing to do on the spending side, so it's a risky position for John McCain to take politically, especially with a conservative base, but it's also one of candor. We'll see whether Barack Obama responds with any different tack of his own on that issue.
From the July 27 edition of ABC's This Week:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Social Security -- you're a longtime supporter of the private accounts, as President Bush called for them.
McCAIN: I am a supporter of sitting down together and putting everything on the table and coming up with an answer. So, there is nothing I would take off the table. There was nothing I would demand. I think that's the way that Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill did it. And that's what we have to do again.
STEPHANOPOULOS: In the past you said there was essentially -- you told The Wall Street Journal --
McCAIN: No, I have said and will say -- I will say that everything has to be on the table, if we're going to reach a bipartisan agreement. I've been in bipartisan negotiations before. I know how you reach a conclusion. We all have to sit down together with everything on the table.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So, that means payroll tax increases are on the table as well?
McCAIN: There is nothing that's off the table. I have my positions, and I'll articulate them. But nothing's off the table. I don't want tax increases. Of course I'd like to have young Americans have some of their money put into an account with their name on it. But that doesn't mean that anything is off the table --
STEPHANOPOULOS: With their payroll taxes diverted into accounts --
McCAIN: I say that everything is on the table that has to be on the table, the way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did.
From the February 17 edition of ABC's This Week:
STEPHANOPOULOS: No. 1 issue right now, the economy.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama went at that on Tuesday night as well.
OBAMA [video clip]: I admired Sen. McCain when he stood up and said that it offended his conscience to support the Bush tax cut for the wealthy in the time of war.  But somewhere along the road to the Republican nomination, the Straight Talk Express lost its wheels because now he's is all for those same tax cuts.
STEPHANOPOULOS: He says basically you've sacrificed your principles for the sake of the nomination.
McCAIN: Well, for a long time I have said that I thought the tax cuts ought to be made permanent. For a long time back, I said, look, we've got to have spending restraint, the way that Reagan did when he restored our economy when it was in the tank, thanks to then-President Carter's mismanagement of the economy, and we entered into a great period of prosperity in America.
Spending restraint is why our base is not energized. Spending restraint is why we are having to borrow money from China, and we've got to have spending restraints, in my view. But to impose on the American people what essentially would be a tax increase of thousands of dollars per family in America is not something I think -- well, I'm sure it would be bad for the economy of this country.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So on taxes, are you a "read my lips" candidate -- no new taxes, no matter what?
McCAIN: No new taxes. I do not -- in fact, I could see an argument, if our economy continues to deteriorate, for lower interest rates, lower tax rates, and certainly decreasing corporate tax rates, which are the second-highest in the world, giving people the ability to write off depreciation in a year, elimination of the AMT [alternative minimum tax]. There's a lot of things that I would think we should to relieve that burden, including, obviously, as we all know, simplification of the tax code.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But under no circumstances would you increase taxes?