After proudly touting his strong leadership in the failed effort to pass the 1998 tobacco regulatory bill at the LIVESTRONG Presidential Town Hall in July, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is backing away from the initiative.
McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin explained that “McCain today does not support raising taxes on cigarettes” and would oppose the legislation’s proposed $1.10-per-pack tax hike.
As the Wonk Room has pointed out, back in 1998, McCain wasn’t just a supporter of the legislation, he was its champion. McCain bulked the entire Republican leadership and the tobacco industry to sponsor what Republicans caricatured as a “a big-government liberal tax-and-spend” philosophy and promised to “never” give up on the legislation.
During that period, McCain conceded that “public health groups are the experts…they certainly have a significant impact [on the tobacco legislation]“ and publicly agreed that a tax increase on a pack of cigarettes could deter youth smoking [FDCH Transcript, 6/17/1998]:
Experts say the most important deterrent to youth smoking is to raise the price per pack of cigarettes. Where is that? Right here… going from 65 cents in 1999 to a $1.10 in the year 2003. That by the way, is the administration’s requested number of $1.10 a pack. [FDCH Transcript, 3/30/1998]
And while the data hasn’t changed, McCain’s opinion has. During his July 24, 2008 appearance at the Livestrong forum, McCain suddenly expressed doubt about the effectiveness of a cigarette tax in deterring smokers:
ZAHN: So is there any circumstance that could be proven to you, if there was a direct correlation between taxes going up and the use of tobacco going down?
MCCAIN: It would have to be proven and frankly the constitution of this Congress, they couldn’t prove it to me, because I don’t believe them. I don’t. I’ve seen corruption in Congress. Ok? We have former members of Congress now residing in Federal prison. So, we’d have to clean up Congress and I think the American people are ready to do that.
McCain also argued that since tobacco companies spent millions of dollars advertising tobacco products, it would be unfair to tax smokers for falling victim to their pitch. But as Satyam Khanna points out, “McCain’s flip-flop suggests” that he has fallen to the conservatives’ pitch, “pandering to his anti-tax base, after catching heat from conservatives for saying that “payroll tax increases” were not “off the table” regarding Social Security.
Ironically, back in 1998, the late Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan noted this about McCain’s efforts to pass the tobacco bill: “you cannot break McCain’s will. You cannot make him quit. You cannot coerce him with threats, bribes, bluster, or 30-second attack ads…If his fellow senators abandon him on this one, they deserve the craven reputation they have earned.” [Boston Globe, 6/3/1998] Today, McCain joins this “craven” bunch.