Mr. Freeze

MR. FREEZE…. A couple of weeks ago, at the first presidential debate, Jim Lehrer noted that the cost of the response to the financial crisis is still undetermined, but it’s likely to be enormous. He pressed John McCain on how it would affect his presidency. After initially dodging the question, McCain responded, “How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs.” Asked if he was really proposing a spending freeze, McCain added he would “seriously consider” it.

I assumed, at the time, that McCain just came up with that on the spot. A spending freeze was never part of McCain’s policy agenda, and it was hard to believe he was serious about this.

But he was. McCain has emphasized the notion of a spending freeze several times over the last couple of weeks, including in his latest “rebootspeech in Virginia this morning.

“I will freeze government spending on all but the most important programs like defense, veterans care, Social Security and health care until we scrub every single government program and get rid of the ones that aren’t working for the American people.”

It really would be helpful if McCain fleshed this out a bit. Are defense, veterans care, Social Security, and health care the only parts of the budget that will be isolated from this “freeze”? As Mark Schmitt recently asked, “In a recession, are Food Stamps frozen? Student loans? Unemployment benefits? Pell Grants? S-CHIP? Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP)? The list is long, and different states and constituencies naturally have their own programs that they would like to know whether McCain would freeze them or not.”

Quite right. A spending freeze would have dramatic real-life consequences. As Yglesias recently noted, a spending freeze would, in real terms, mean “less money for your local police department. Less money for the FBI. Less money for Head Start. Less money for Pell Grants. Less money for infrastructure. Less money for everything except failed banks and endless wars.”

This proposed spending “freeze” seems to be getting no real attention at all, perhaps because reporters assumed, as I did, that McCain didn’t mean it and was just throwing out nonsense to get through a debate. But he seems to be serious about this and it deserves a lot more scrutiny.

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Steve Benen

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.