Column: US candidates’ fiscal options fade

In Friday’s televised debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the candidates were pressed to say how the financial crisis and the proposed rescue scheme would affect their plans for government. The debate’s moderator – Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting Service, who gave a master class in that demanding craft – was courteous but persistent on the point, and got nowhere.

Mr McCain defaulted to a standard talking-point: the need to get a grip, without saying how, on public spending. He again underlined his opposition to earmarks (local spending projects tacked on to larger pieces of legislation). He is right that they are abusive, but they are small in relation to public spending as a whole. Spending bills in the current year included $17bn (€11.6bn, £9.2bn) in earmarks, compared with total outlays of about $3,000bn, and a deficit of roughly $400bn. The Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (Tarp) envisages new outlays of $700bn.

Beyond earmarks, Mr McCain said, every government programme needed to be examined for effectiveness. A partial spending freeze should also be seriously considered. No doubt: all appropriate measures should be taken, and none that are inappropriate. But this broad position was his policy before the crisis broke. No need, apparently, to think again on tax cuts. For Mr McCain, apparently, nothing has changed.

The remainder of this column can be read here. Please post comments below.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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