The top candidates on both sides of the 2008 U.S. presidential contest have shown their eagerness to spend tax dollars. But their priorities reflect widely differing views of the role of government in addressing complex problems.
Clinton, Obama and Edwards have embraced ambitious government programs to help provide health care and education and to conquer global warming. For the most part, Clinton and Obama have offered specific ways to fund their proposals, while Edwards has argued that running a modest federal deficit is acceptable if it means investing in health care and reducing poverty.
Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson promote tax cuts and the need to rein in federal spending. They frequently deride their Democratic rivals as big spenders, but are themselves reluctant to say what they would cut to pay for tax cuts and U.S. military engagements.
Paul Weinstein, an economist at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, argues that candidates of both parties need to adjust their rhetoric if they are to be taken seriously as responsible fiscal stewards.
"Democrats need to talk about budget cuts first - not just things like closing corporate loopholes, but specific programs they would cut to have the money necessary for other things," he said. "Republicans need to 'fess up' about the fact that under the Republican leadership of the last six years, we've cut taxes but we've also spent more and not managed our books. Low taxes are important for growth but we also have to make a reasonable attempt to trim government."
Here's where the major candidates are on federal programs, spending and tax cuts:
Clinton's latest proposal, a $1 billion paid family leave program outlined Tuesday and financed by eliminating some tax shelters, comes atop several other major costly social programs she's outlined recently. But the New York senator isn't the only Democrat advocating major new federal initiatives. Obama and Edwards also have laid out multibillion-dollar programs on health care, energy independence and tax fairness.
Clinton wants to create a $50 billion "strategic energy fund" to develop new sources of fuel and has proposed paying for it by eliminating tax subsidies for oil companies. Edwards has outlined a similar program and would eliminate the oil company subsidies as well as establish a cap-and-trade system requiring companies to pay for emitting pollution.
Obama has pledged a 10-year, $150 billion program to produce "climate friendly" energy supplies. To pay for it, he would implement a 100 percent carbon auction where businesses would have to bid competitively for the right to pollute.
McCain, who has a long record as a spending hawk, voted against Bush's 2001 tax cuts but now says they should be extended because doing otherwise would amount to a tax increase.
Recently, the candidates have been challenged on the issue of the alternative minimum tax. Originally introduced in 1970 over concern that wealthy families were able to avoid paying federal income taxes, the AMT has never been indexed for inflation and has begun to snag millions of middle-class taxpayers.
In a debate on economic issues last week, Thompson advocated indexing the AMT for inflation and phasing it out altogether over time. But that would cost the government $621 billion in revenue over the next 10 years, say the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Romney has said he would eliminate taxes on interest and dividends for families earning less than $200,000 annually, which the campaign says would cost $32 billion. Aides say it would be paid for through economic growth and by holding non-defense, discretionary spending to inflation minus 1 percentage point.
McCain was the most ambitious of the three, focusing on cost containment, treating chronic diseases and providing tax subsidies to buy insurance. When he unveiled the plan last week, McCain acknowledged that he didn't know how much it would cost, but aides said it would be paid for by ending a provision in the tax code that lets employers deduct the cost of health care from their taxable earnings.
Giuliani also offered no cost estimate for his health plan, which would provide tax credits to help individuals pay for insurance rather than relying on employers to do so.
Romney has said his plan is revenue neutral. It would spend existing resources and reroute federal dollars to the states to cover the uninsured with private insurance. He has distanced himself from a major initiative passed in Massachusetts while he was governor that requires all residents to buy health insurance.