MCCAIN’S MENDACIOUS MEMORY….In 2001 and 2003, Bush pushed two massive tax-cut packages through Congress, with near-universal Republican support. Indeed, it was something akin to a GOP fealty test — to vote for the White House tax cuts was to be a good Republican.

In the Senate, two GOP lawmakers balked — Lincoln Chafee, who later left the party, and John McCain, who no longer wants to talk about his votes.

When pressed, McCain usually argues that he rejected Bush’s tax cuts because there were no accompanying spending cuts to prevent massive deficits. The defense has always been largely incoherent, for at least two reasons. First, McCain now believes tax cuts can pay for themselves (aka, the “Tax Fairy” theory), so there was no need for spending cuts. Second, McCain, at the time, said quite clearly that his opposition to the cuts had nothing to do with spending, and everything to do with Bush’s policy being excessively skewed to the wealthy.

At last night’s Republican debate in Simi Valley, the LAT’s Janet Hook asked for an explanation. McCain responded:

“I was part of the Reagan revolution. I was there with Jack Kemp and Phil Graham and Warren Rudman and all these other first that wanted to change a terrible economic situation in America with 10 percent unemployment and 20 percent interest rates. I was proud to be a foot soldier, support those tax cuts, and they had spending restraints associated with it.

“I made it very clear when I ran in 2000 that I had a package of tax cuts, which were very important and very impactful, but I also had restraints in spending. And I disagreed when spending got out of control, and I disagreed when we had tax cuts without spending restraint. And guess what? Spending got out of control.

“Republicans lost the 2006 election not over the war in Iraq; over spending. Our base became disenchanted.”

Does this make any sense at all? The question was rather straightforward: what McCain said in 2001 and 2003 doesn’t match what McCain is saying now. He had one rationale for his position then, and a different rationale for his position now. That’s not necessarily the end of the world — candidates can change their mind — and this was a chance for McCain to explain the pretty obvious inconsistency.

But he responded with a garbled and incoherent mess. Noam Scheiber said McCain’s answer was “one of the most incoherent answers I’ve heard at a presidential debate this campaign season.” I’m hard pressed to disagree.

The point I can’t get around, though, is that McCain had to realize a question like this was coming. Indeed, after a year of campaigning, he’s probably heard it before.

Maybe McCain’s vaunted political skills have been exaggerated a bit?

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.