- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

LAKE FOREST, Calif. — At a religious values forum this weekend, John McCain” href=”/themes/?Theme=John+McCain” >Sen. John McCain was asked about his biggest flip-flop of the past decade. He pointed to his newfound support for offshore drilling, but his biggest change might have come during the forum itself, when he completed his transformation from class warrior to supply-side tax cutter.

In 2000, Mr. McCain’s rhetoric rivaled that of liberal Democrats as he declared, “I’m not giving tax cuts for the rich” and, a year later, when he joined Democrats to oppose President Bush’s tax cuts, saying they came “at the expense of lower- and middle-income American taxpayers.”

This weekend, Mr. McCain took his place with the Republican Party’s most fervent of supply-siders.

“I don’t want to take any money from the rich; I want everybody to get rich,” he said at Saturday’s forum at the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. “I don’t believe in class warfare or redistribution of the wealth.”

The switch has been some time in the making. As one of just two Republican senators to vote against the 2001 tax cuts, and one of just three to oppose the 2003 cuts, he angered members of his own party and raised his image of bravery among Democrats. He defended those votes at late as 2005.

But by 2006, he was voting with Republicans to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. He still holds that position, although he would raise the estate tax slightly higher than what is in Mr. Bush’s plan.

Democrats said the switch exposes Mr. McCain’s transformation from maverick into a Republican in the Bush mold.

“Make no mistake: The John McCain who opposed the Bush tax cuts in 2000 because they were too tilted to the wealthy wouldn’t even consider voting for the John McCain who now wants to make them permanent and blow a hole in our budget by taking the Bush borrow-and-spend agenda to dangerous new extremes,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera.

The McCain campaign did not directly address questions about flip-flopping, but said the Republican’s position on tax cuts is one of the key differences between him and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama” href=”/themes/?Theme=Barack+Obama” >Sen. Barack Obama.

“Americans have a clear choice in this election. John McCain will cut taxes and keep them low; Barack Obama will raise them,” said Brian Rogers, a McCain campaign spokesman.

At Mr. Warren’s forum, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama were asked how they define “rich,” given the talk about raising taxes on the wealthy.

Mr. Obama used humor, telling Mr. Warren that anyone who has sold 25 million books - that’s how many the pastor’s “The Purpose Driven Life” has sold - qualifies as rich. He then said $250,000 in yearly income is a good benchmark for wealth, and that those who make that much should pay a “modest” tax increase.

On the other hand, he said, someone with $150,000 in annual income can be considered middle-class or even poor, depending on where they live, and should receive a tax cut.

Mr. McCain seemed more reluctant to put a dollar figure on the word “rich,” saying instead that some of the richest people he knows “are the most unhappy.”

He said his definition of “rich” would be an income of $5 million a year.

His statements would seem to carefully place Mr. McCain just above the line of what he would consider “rich.” His wife’s 2006 income was slightly more than $6 million, according to tax records she made public earlier this year.

The Obama campaign said the Republican’s answer showed that Mr. McCain’s priorities are wrong.

“It should come as no surprise that John McCain believes the cutoff for the rich begins at $5 million. It may explain why his tax plan gives a $600,000 tax cut to the richest 0.1 percent of earners but completely leaves out 101 million hardworking American families,” Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Mr. McCain seemed to realize he set a high bar for wealth, and that Democrats may use his figure against him: “I’m sure that comment will be distorted,” he said.

Mr. McCain has explained his shift on the tax issue in various ways over the past two years. At times, he has defended his votes against the Bush cuts, and other times has hinted he made a mistake.

He also has contradicted himself on Social Security reform, saying he wouldn’t raise taxes but also that he wouldn’t rule out a tax increase if that’s what it takes to achieve negotiations. Fiscal conservative groups gave mixed reviews on his clarifications.

Mr. Obama, who had been a staunch opponent of the parts of the Bush tax cuts that primarily benefited those with higher incomes, is also relaxing his position. Last week, he said he would institute a 20 percent capital gains tax rate, five percentage points higher than current law but still less than the 28 percent rate he had floated earlier in the campaign.

The Democrat still calls for raising the top tax rate back to its level under President Clinton, which was 39.6 percent.

His plan got support from unexpected quarters last week when a Heritage Foundation analyst praised his call for lower capital gains taxes, telling the New York Sun that means middle-class taxpayers will likely pay less taxes under Mr. Obama than under Mr. McCain.