Romney's tax claim against McCain

SUMMARY: Romney says McCain has flip-flopped on the Bush tax cuts. He's right, but McCain has an explanation.

Invoking an issue that strikes a chord with many New Hampshire voters, Mitt Romney is charging John McCain flip-flopped on tax cuts. He says McCain broke with conservative orthodoxy by voting against President Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax changes.

He has made the charge in news releases, speeches and, most recently, in a new ad on his Web site.

The 30-second spot, called "Remember," features a series of New Hampshire residents who first praise McCain's military record but then criticize him for opposing tax cuts that could help working families, and also for advocating that some illegal immigrants earn citizenship. You can see it here.

Romney's charge, designed to raise questions with the GOP base about McCain's conservative credentials at a time when he is moving up in the polls, might resonate in the antitax state, which has neither a general sales tax nor a personal income tax.

We find Romney is accurately summarizing McCain's record, though he is omitting some important details.

McCain has long cultivated a reputation as a "straight talk" fiscal conservative, saying that tax cuts must be matched by spending cuts.

In 2001, McCain voted against a $1.35-trillion tax cut package that marked Bush's first big legislative achievement after initially supporting an alternative plan that had tighter spending limits. Two years later, McCain opposed $350-billion in additional tax cuts, saying he couldn't support cutting taxes in the face of unknown war costs. "No one can be expected to make an informed decision about fiscal policy at this time," McCain said. "Let us wait until we have succeeded in Iraq." McCain also said he wouldn't support any spending increases that weren't related to defense or homeland security.

But in 2006, McCain voted to extend the Bush tax cuts for five years, saying not to do so would be tantamount to raising taxes at a time when the economy was sputtering.

At the time, McCain said he supported the tax-cut extensions, which reduced tax rates on capital gains and dividend income, because "American businesses and investors need a stable and predictable tax policy to continue contributing to the growth of our economy. These considerations lead me to the conclusion that we should not reverse course by letting higher tax rates take effect."

In an interview on Fox News on Dec. 28, 2007, he expressed no regrets about his tax votes against Bush. He said he would have preferred a plan that included spending cuts as well as tax cuts, but added that he believes the tax cuts should now be made permanent.

"I had significant tax cuts, and there was restraint of spending included in my proposal," McCain said during the appearance on Hannity & Colmes. "I saw no restraint in spending. We presided over the greatest increase in the size of government since the Great Society. Spending went completely out of control. It's still out of control. Wasteful earmark spending is a disgrace, and it caused us to alienate our Republican base. So these tax cuts need to be made permanent. Otherwise, they would have the effect of tax increases. But, look, if we had gotten spending under control, we'd be talking about more tax cuts today."

Romney's charges must be giving McCain an uneasy sense of deja vu. The veteran senator is eager to avoid a repeat of the 2000 presidential race, when conservative interest groups questioned his loyalty to their causes and barraged him with negative ads.

McCain has reached out to antitax groups and frequently played up his fiscal conservative credentials, particularly his crusades against earmarks in spending bills and his opposition to the expensive Medicare prescription drug benefit. The goal is to emphasize that he votes the conservative line close to 80 percent of the time — a fact borne out by several vote studies — and isn't at war with conservative leaders.

While McCain might be downplaying his maverick streak, he clearly is not hiding his irritation with Romney. In a Dec. 28 appearance on Fox News' Fox and Friends, McCain said he doesn't know how to respond to many of Romney's charges "because tomorrow he may have a different position."

McCain might want to depict Romney as a flip-flopper on taxes and other issues, but the fact remains: McCain voted the way Romney says. We find Romney's claim to be True.