This week, Democrats reclaim control of the U.S. Senate -- a gift from Jim Jeffords,
With the defection of Vermont's Jim Jeffords from their ranks, Senate Republicans are making a special effort these days to keep their members happy and avoid further losses.
This has focused more than the usual amount of attention on John McCain, Republican of Arizona. He is thought to be the most alienated Republican senator, and therefore the one most likely to switch parties. McCain added fuel to this fire recently by inviting new Senate Majority Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, to his Arizona ranch for a "social" visit.
McCain later denied having any intention of leaving the Republican Party, and I believe him. Although lately he has been publicly feuding with members of his own party over campaign finance and other issues, McCain unquestionably is a conservative. He has a lifetime vote rating of 85 from the American Conservative Union, while the most conservative Democrat, John Breaux of Louisiana, is at 47. As unhappy as he may be with the Republican Party at times, McCain would be even more unhappy in the Democratic Party, and he knows it.
There seems to be something in McCain's personality that causes him to constantly emphasize his differences with the Republican Party, rather than the much greater number of things they have in common. I think everyone has known someone like McCain in our lives -- someone with whom we agree on most issues, but who always wants to argue intensely about the few things we disagree about.
To take one example, McCain believes passionately in a strong national defense -- not surprising since he was a career naval officer and a prisoner of war in Vietnam. This clearly makes him much more in tune philosophically with the Republicans than the Democrats. Since Vietnam, the Democrats have increasingly become the peace-at-any-price party, always eager to cut defense spending while using the military as a laboratory for liberal social experiments.
There is no possible way that McCain could have watched the way Bill Clinton ran the Pentagon into the ground for eight years and believe he has anything in common with Clinton's party. If for no other reason, McCain will remain a Republican because the Republican Party is the party of national defense. This fact will become even clearer in the months to come as the very liberal Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, takes over the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee from conservative John Warner, Republican of Virginia.
McCain would do himself some good by trying a little harder to emphasize areas of agreement with his fellow Republicans, instead of constantly harping on his differences. One area he might work on is tax policy.
During his failed run for the Republican presidential nomination last year, McCain put forward some interesting ideas about tax reform that are worthy of serious consideration. In contrast to George W. Bush, who has never articulated a vision of where tax policy should ultimately be going, McCain has made it clear that the United States should move toward a flat rate consumption-based tax system.
McCain's campaign economic adviser, Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute, tells me that the senator is a very strong believer in not taxing savings. This is consistent with the views of most economists, who see higher saving as key to raising the economy's long-term growth potential. Hassett says that McCain would also like to see a flat-rate tax structure that would greatly reduce the impact of taxes on economic decision-making by businesses and individuals.
Moving toward a neutral tax system, which neither encourages nor discourages certain types of economic activity, also fits in with McCain's notions about campaign finance reform. He knows that the tax lobbyists are the highest paid lobbyists in Washington and that they are the biggest single source of campaign contributions. That is why seats on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee are the most prized in Congress.
Fundamental tax reform theoretically would reduce the power of the lobbyists by taking away their ability to stick special provisions into the Tax Code that benefit particular businesses and industries. Conversely, in McCain's view, limiting campaign contributions will make fundamental tax reform more achievable, by reducing the power of lobbyists to insert or block the repeal of special interest provisions in the Tax Code.
McCain would be doing the nation a service if he used his popularity to make tax reform a major issue. It would also make it easier for him to live with his fellow Republicans, and them with him.