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If we can get past all the noise about Barack Obama’s minister, Hillary Clinton’s 11-year-old recollection of an airport tarmac, and John McCain’s stumble over which Iraqi gunmen are backed by the Iranians, voters will actually have real choices this November. If you don’t believe it, think about how they’d manage today’s economy.
When they talk about both the long-term economy and the short-run credit mess, both Clinton and Obama argue for more government intervention. They want to bail out homeowners, provide more tax breaks for middle- and working-class families, and create a health insurance system with heavy government participation. They want the wealthy to pay far more in taxes than they do today.
By contrast, McCain (who was not always so laissez faire in his years in the Senate), is playing the role of a Ronald Reagan-like free-marketeer. He wants to lower the corporate tax rate and allow business to write off capital investments in the year they are purchased, extend the Bush tax cuts and make the tax treatment of health insurance more equal between those who get coverage through their job and those who buy on their own. He also says he would not bail out either homeowners or bankers “who act irresponsibly.”
These are profound differences. The events of the past couple of weeks are powerful evidence of just how differently McCain and the Democratic contenders would govern. What would the markets and the real economy look like if McCain, in contrast to President Bush, refused to bail out Wall Street firms that are sinking under the weight of their own bad investments? What would the real estate market look like if Clinton capped mortgage rates, as she has promised?
One reason Al Gore lost in 2000 was that many environmentalists and liberals abandoned him, arguing there was little difference between Gore and George W. Bush. Many, of course, drifted to Ralph Nader. It is hard to miss similar talk today. Some on the Right still say they’d prefer to see McCain lose, so they can remake the GOP according to true conservative values. Many Obama backers similarly threaten to walk away from Clinton if she gets the Democratic nomination. Some Clintonites threaten to return the favor.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater talked about how he would provide “a choice not an echo” when compared to Lyndon Johnson. That was as dramatic a contrast between candidates as I have seen in my lifetime. This year, the debate will be within a narrower range, but the economic policy gap between either Clinton or Obama on one hand and McCain on the other will give voters real alternatives. If you don’t think so, just think about the what-ifs of the past few weeks.
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