Friday, March 27, 2009

Political Theater column

He may not be riding the “Straight Talk Express” anymore, but that doesn’t mean Sen. John McCain isn’t going to deliver “some cold, hard facts” to the people he still calls “my friends.”

While President Obama was addressing millions of viewers live from the White House East Room on Thursday, expounding on his trillion-dollar expansion of the federal government, his vanquished presidential foe held court in a small auditorium with a couple of hundred hard-core conservatives, pointing out every single flaw of the expensive plan.

“Elections have consequences,” said the diminutive senator, who at times fiercely jammed his index finger onto the podium to punctuate a point during a 20-minute speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“Elections have consequences,” he repeated, pausing between each word for emphasis. “And these consequences we are seeing now in full display.”

Even though his bully pulpit is not quite as bully, and his pulpit more of a soapbox, the former Republican presidential candidate quickly has become one of the president’s most vocal critics on a subject he has long been passionate about - federal spending.

Stopping just short of calling Mr. Obama disingenuous or dishonest, Mr. McCain said Thursday that the president can’t possibly expand spending - generating more debt in a single term than was created by every president from George Washington to George Bush combined - without making massive spending cuts. Thus, he said, the president’s plan to cut taxes for all but 5 percent of Americans is mathematically impossible.

“Insulating 95 percent of voters from the consequences of their electoral decisions is dangerous for a democracy. It is also misleading. Does anyone really believe we can expand non-defense spending to a record share of GDP, reform the health care system that is one-sixth of the economy, reinvent the energy portfolio that powers our lives, and drive next-generation broadband to every home while cutting taxes for 95 percent of Americans?

“It doesn’t add up. It won’t add up. And it won’t last,” he said, drawing applause.

He was then asked what will happen. “We have to raise taxes. You know - and it follows as the night [follows] the day, because if you increase spending and you let government grow, then sooner or later you’ve got to pay for it.”

Far from skulking away with his tail between his legs after his defeat, Mr. McCain has kept up a steady drumbeat of opposition to the president’s expansive proposals. While some other Republican leaders have steered clear of attacking the popular president, the former Navy fighter pilot has been taking direct aim at his former Senate colleague.

Mr. McCain already has announced he will seek re-election to the Senate in 2010, and he’s using his political action committee, Country First, to target the man in charge.

“President Obama is continuing his all-hands-on-deck push to gain support for his massive, $3.6 trillion budget that even members of his own party question,” the Arizona senator said in an e-mail to supporters just hours after his Heritage speech. “President Obama is having a tough time selling this budget; and the simple reason is this - he spends too much money! … At the rate the Obama administration is spending our tax dollars, our country will never get our fiscal house in order.”

The senator, clad in a gray suit with a powder-blue shirt and pink tie, decried the “lack of transparency” in the $700 billion bailout, and vowed to reject federal expenditures that lack sufficient oversight.

“I will not support the release of another dime of these funds without first seeing a full and complete accounting of funds already spent or committed, as well as the imposition of very strict conditions on the remaining funds as a way to ensure that any expenditures reflect the intent of Congress,” said Mr. McCain, casting the federal bailout of corporations as a “grave mistake.”

• Joseph Curl can be reached at

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