Larry Kudlow’s Question: “Is McCain Like Ike?”

Larry Kudlow, on last night’s CNBC show, remarked that I had e-mailed him comparing John McCain to President Eisenhower. One guest, Jerry Bower, realized this was not necessarily a compliment. He noted that Eisenhower Republicans kept tax rates extremely high on both individuals and business, viewing that as the “fiscally responsible” way to finance a big defense budget. The economy was in recession almost as often as not in those days – in 1953-54, 1957-58 and 1960. John F. Kennedy, Bower rightly noted, campaigned on slashing [Republican] tax rates to get the economy moving again. When tax rates were finally cut in 1964, it worked (as always).

The two parties switched sides recently, with Republicans adopting JFK’s approach by cutting the most destructive tax rates in 1981-86, and Democrats sounding and acting more like Ike since 1993. Similarly, FDR ran against Hoover’s protectionism in 1932, but Republicans and Democrats have taken turns being the most protectionist in recent years (the word “populist” in both parties often means advocating tariffs on necessities to further impoverish the poor).

The Eisenhower-Nixon years defined the phrase “fiscal conservative.” If Democrats spent too much, a “fiscal conservative” would regard it as his duty to do the honorable thing and raise tax rates as much and as often as required, if only to protect the military budget.

My quick e-mail to Kudlow is reproduced below, warts and all. It is obviously more opinionated and political than my public writing, yet not really partisan:

Larry,

McCain would be eager and enthusiastic to join with past co-authors – Kennedy, Edwards, Lieberman and Feingold – to raise tax rates on high incomes, capital gains, dividends and estates.

McCain could surely be persuaded to remove the cap on the Social Security tax. That move, added to a state-local marginal rate above 45%, would make the top tax in the U.S. much higher than in any other civilized country, including Sweden (which has the least progressive tax system of them all). Many European countries allow the payroll tax to be deducted from the income tax, but it’s a nasty add-on for us. It’s loosely tied to benefits, but Social Security would become a pure redistribution scheme if they uncapped the tax.

All the Democrats need to do in exchange for such higher tax rates on the rich is to offer to “fix” the AMT (to make sure it just hits the rich) and cut the nominal corporate tax rate (after “closing loopholes” like quick depreciation), and also to fund any and all U.S. troops in the Middle East.

In McCain’s view, this would be another bold act of leadership, like pushing McCain-Feingold after being tarnished as a member of the Keating Five.

It would show how marvelously bipartisan he is, how fiscally responsible, unlike that upstart George W. Bush. I can see the smug grin even now.

Recall Ike’s excess profits tax and 90% tax rates to bankroll the Korean “police action.” McCain is a reincarnation of Ike. He sees great national honor in (taxpayer) sacrifice, compulsory national service, etc. You may recall a WSJ column I wrote calling the Rubin crowd “Eisenhower Democrats” in contrast with Kemp and the “J.F. Kennedy Republicans.” It caused Bill to yell at his staff, but they still didn’t get it.

All that matters to McCain is a big military/VA budget. He does hope to be frugal on domestic discretionary spending, but can’t accomplish nearly enough with a Democratic congress to offset even 10% of military spending at the Bush pace (which he sees as inadequate).

Besides, he feels, big corporations and greedy investors need to sacrifice for the common good. He always said so., and he hasn’t changed. The only reduction in tax rates he supported in recent years was cutting payroll taxes for the poor (nearly all of whom don’t work, so that’s a cheap gesture).

In a WSJ interview with Tunku, Milton Friedman once said some people are natural economists. I spent a couple of hours with Mitt and large group of the best economists I’ve ever seen in one room, even the White House. Romney held his own quite well. Very credible, wise and tough on big spenders.

I didn’t sign on to any candidate’s team (Doug called too), partly because I want to remain an unpredictable maverick. McCain is 100% predictable – no maverick at all.

If it ended up being a contest between McCain-Huckabee populists on the Republican ticket versus a familiar Obama-Richardson shift from defense to nondefense spending (always popular, always overdone), Republicans would not view my writing as helpful.

The only comfort is that if the Dems controlled the White House, Senate and House, they’d go overboard quickly and lose control of Congress after 2-4 years.

The 2011 tax time bomb would actually explode beneath John or Hillary, leaving the market in shambles in 2010 and the economy in ruin in 2011. Mitt is not that suicidal – he’d like a second term.

Alan Reynolds