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May 21, 2004

Some Perspective on Hastert v. McCain

It seems a mild, inside the Beltway, scuffle to become outraged about, and my emotions aren't strong either way. However, I thought it worth tracing back a bit of righteous anger from Rod Dreher (whom I respect and like) to see whether I ought to follow suit. Here's Rod (with two key points emphasized by me):

That's the headline on the lead editorial in today's Dallas Morning News, which whacks House Speaker Denny Hastert for his disgraceful suggestion that John McCain needs to go visit wounded soldiers to learn something about sacrifice. I know McCain is not the GOP leadership's favorite, but how dare Speaker Hastert, who escaped Vietnam service on a medical deferment, say such a thing about a senator who was beaten so badly by the communists that he can't raise his hands above his head, and who refused to end his torment by leaving prison early, ahead of his comrades, when the North Vietnamese offered to let him go? It boggles the mind that Hastert would stoop so low -- and over a budget issue, on which McCain happens to be right. It makes me ill that the GOP runs the executive and the legislative branches, and this conservative government is spending worse than Democrats.

McCain is right to say that's wrong. I wish more Republicans would. I'm sick of being told we can have tax cuts without cuts in nonmilitary spending, which as we know has skyrocketed under this administration.

Here's the Dallas Morning News editorial to which Rod refers:

Mr. Hastert's insult of his fellow Republican came in response to comments the Arizona senator made the day before at a deficit conference. "My friends, we are at war," Mr. McCain said then. "Throughout our history, wartime has been a time of sacrifice. But about the only sacrifice taking place is that by the brave men and women fighting to defend and protect the liberties we hold so dear, and that of their families. It is time for others to step up and start sacrificing." ...

What a disgraceful display. Mr. Hastert needs to be sent to the woodshed with fellow loudmouth Sen. Ted Kennedy, who recently implied that the U.S. management of the Iraqi prison was no different from Saddam Hussein's, which turned it into a blood-soaked gulag.

In fact, Mr. McCain's critique – which was leveled at both parties – is entirely legitimate. According to a recent report by the libertarian Cato Institute, total federal spending will rise 29 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2005. You can't blame it on the war: Nondefense spending will increase about 36 percent during Mr. Bush's first term – this, under a Republican Congress.

It is deeply offensive to trash Mr. McCain as a fake Republican and pseudo-patriot because he insists that it's immoral to spend money we don't have, especially during wartime.

Here's Hastert's exchange with a reporter:

The exchange started when a reporter asked: "Can I combine a two issues, Iraq and taxes? I heard a speech from John McCain the other day..."

Hastert: "Who?"

Reporter: "John McCain."

Hastert: "Where's he from?"

Reporter: "He's a Republican from Arizona."

Hastert: "A Republican?"

Amid nervous laughter, the reporter continued with his question: "Anyway, his observation was never before when we've been at war have we been worrying about cutting taxes and his question was, 'Where's the sacrifice?' "

Hastert: "If you want to see the sacrifice, John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda. There's the sacrifice in this country. We're trying to make sure they have the ability to fight this war, that they have the wherewithal to be able to do it. And, at the same time, we have to react to keep this country strong."

And here's the line from McCain:

As mind-boggling as expanding Medicare has been, nothing tops my confusion with the rationale for cutting taxes during wartime. I don’t remember ever in the history of warfare when we cut taxes.

First, Hastert did not say that that McCain needs "to learn something about sacrifice." Extemporaneously responding to a reporter's characterization of McCain's speech, Hastert said that the troops are making a sacrifice and that the government has to support them financially and to keep the economy strong. (I assume he means the economy, since he was responding to a question about tax cuts.)

Second, although McCain's speech, to the Progressive Policy Institute Forum, was more broadly directed at government spending and devoted most of the tax-cut talk to corporate tax breaks, it appears that Hastert hadn't heard the speech and was only reacting to the line offered by the reporter. Whether or not one believes tax cuts deserve much of the credit for the current growth of our economy, Hastert seems to be referring to that dynamic, not defending big-government spending. As it happens, I agree with most of what McCain says. I also believe that the rhetoric could be toned down some, but that goes for Rod, as well.

Given the heat of the editorial's reaction and the slight-but-significant twist of Hastert's comment to imply something that it did not originally imply, Rod seems to be mixing a heavy helping of politics with his principles, as well. Distorting Hastert's on-the-fly remarks and then comparing them to Ted Kennedy's prepared equation of the Bush administration to the Ba'athists as a regime that encourages torture? That manages to escalate Republican differences beyond the reach of dialogue at the same time as it minimizes the near-treasonous bile from Kennedy.

If this keeps up, editorial cries of outrage will become the pro forma expressions of disagreement. Now, that would be a disgrace.

Ramesh Ponnuru agrees. He makes more points than this, but here's the policy-debate component on which I lack the research to comment:

As for McCain's being right on the underlying budget issues: There is room for doubt. McCain wants a budget rule that makes it harder to cut taxes or increase spending. But he has voted to waive the rules to allow more spending. House Republicans have noticed that, and they don't like it. Whoever's right, it certainly complicates the picture of McCain as apostle of fiscal rectitude.
Posted by Justin Katz at May 21, 2004 3:02 PM