What a Scandal Doesn’t Look Like

I’m seeing some folks getting all hypervent-ally over a new tidbit of news, in which Newsweek discovered that Cindy McCain was behind on the property tax on some of her property, to the tune of some amount less than $10,000; apparently she was in arrears on the taxes for fours years and were about to default when Newsweek alerted the McCain campaign. She apparently paid up immediately, because, after all, when you’re worth $100 million, you can do that.

Folks on the left side of the B’sphere are trying to rouse up some outrage, but you know what? Meh. So some properties they have slipped through the cracks. When you have a lot of properties and investments, this will happen from time to time. The details of the story suggest pretty strongly that Cindy McCain wan’t trying to avoid paying taxes, there was just some screw-up in delivering the tax bills; the end result would have been an elderly relative of Mrs. McCain being booted out of her residence, which one may reasonably assume would not have been what either McCain would have wanted.

Now, the problem is that if we know anything about the Internets — if we are aware of Internets, so to speak — we know that what it’s really good at is revving people up insensibly over things that are fundamentally penny-ante. And while this is fun, I think it desensitizes people to things that actually matter, and also gives ammunition to the spin doctors, who can use amped-up outrage over little stuff like this to lessen the impact of something that is potentially, genuinely scandalous on the part of a candidate (or in this case, let’s note, his spouse). Outrage against a candidate is a finite resource, not an infinite public utility; use it sparingly and wisely.

In other words, all signs point to a minor screw-up, now rectified. People trying to use this as an example of the absent-mindedness we can expect from McCain re: the economy if he is the president are hereby presented with a small paper bag and the advice to breathe into it slowly. This is not a big deal. It merits sarcasm at best.

On this point, electoral vote tracking site fivethirtyeight.com has an interesting piece called The Electric Minor Political Scandal Acid Test, in which that site’s proprietor looks at five factors to see whether a minor scandal like this will have any legs. By his formula, “La Jolla-gate” will have medium impact. He may be right. It’s not worth even that.

50 Comments on “What a Scandal Doesn’t Look Like”

  1. Between the rabid republican-haters and the rabid democrat-haters, it’s nice to see some reason now and then. Thanks.

  2. Good call. It’s just another attempt to throw up smoke screens to mask your side’s faults. Both campaigns have done it and will continue to do so.I happen to fall down on the Obama side even though I’m registered as a Republican and have been for forty years.
    I happen to think Obama will be the best thing for this country at this time. Is he perfect? Of course not. I dare say neither candidate’s beliefs fall fully with those that support them.
    Therefor people that support them think they have to gloss over these inconsistencies with a lot of BS. Some folks will buy it, others won’t.

  3. There’s a brouhaha around here about our local state rep disparaging getting a Republican rally in his community – one of the few in Ohio that went blue in the last presidential election. The local Republicans are fuming, but the fact remains that he was right. Getting a GOP rally around here would be rough.

    The only way anyone knew what he’d said was it was posted on Youtube. It was an off-the-cuff remark that should have been let die.

  4. Al Franken had a (payroll?) tax problem in New York; he paid it off as soon as he found out, but it was gristle for the media for weeks.

    Cindy McCain had a property tax problem; she paid it off as soon as she found out, but the media paid attention for less than an hour.

  5. Seems to me that someone who’s got so much property they forget to pay taxes on some of it doesn’t have a hell of a lot of room to call anyone else “elitist.”

  6. Love the EMPSCAT, by the way, but I’ll disagree with on EM’s conclusions: “McCain hasn’t made an especially big deal of housing or taxation issues”.

    Ah, excuse me? Maybe not housing, but McCain, like every Republican, has “cutting taxes” as the center of his economic recovery plan.

    Of course, if tax cuts are so good for the economy, how come it’s in such a mess after seven and a half years of Bush tax cuts?

  7. There’s one other aspect to the story that you may have missed. Specifically, using the tax dodge story as a vehicle to point out that the McCains are extremely rich. So rich – in fact – that they have a tough time keeping track of all of the ‘rich people’ homes that they own.

    McCain is trying to himself as the man of the people – while at the same time trying to paint Obama as some rich country club type. Tough to get the story line across when you owe 4 years of back taxes on a beach front condo.

  8. With FTL travel, you could have a mother younger than her son, but in this case, she’s older.

  9. Um, if Obama hadn’t paid his taxes, we’d never hear the end of it. Look what happened with the completely non-existent Rezco “scandal”. Look at what was made of his tenuous association with William Ayers, a man who 40 years ago was vaguely affiliated with a group of vaguely defined terrorist-wannabes.

    I’m getting sick of this. McCain completely contradicts himself on virtually every single issue on a daily basis, but nobody calls him on it, but Obama reverses himself on public financing and that’s a huge frickin’ deal(not to mention the fact that McCain has broken and continues to break the very law that he wrote, according to the highest ranking Republican on the defunct FEC). Let’s face it: The media, pissed that Obama is gonna raise so much money, now feels compelled to try to level the playing field for their guy. If that means blatant hypocrisy, a bunch of Gore-ing nontroversies, no biggie.

  10. Abe:

    “Um, if Obama hadn’t paid his taxes, we’d never hear the end of it.”

    And? Because other people act stupidly, everyone else should act stupidly as well? By all means, point out hypocrisy when it happens, but don’t over-inflate minor events as a way to even the playing field. That just makes everyone look stupid.

    Also, simply as a rhetorical thing, I hate the “um” maneuver. If it’s not being used sarcastically and/or by someone under the age of 18, it usually ends up making the user and his argument look a little shallow.

  11. Glad I used “ah,” rather than “um,” then.

    The point is, McCain brings this on himself. If John McCain hadn’t joined into the “elitist” dogpile, then the fact that the McCains own so many houses that they forget to pay taxes on one of them, or the fact that McCain, when questioned, doesn’t know the price of gas, would indeed be non issues. But when you make “elitist vs. regular Joe” a central campaign theme, you deserve to have your “regular guy” credentials questioned.

  12. I don’t think it’s a problem to note it — as I said, it certainly merits sarcasm. But anything more than that is just overexertion, in my opinion.

  13. J.D. at #7:

    Well, J.D., Bush may well be good at cutting taxes, but no matter how much you cut, you still have to spend less than what you have in the bank. :)

    Oh wait, I think that’s called fiscal responsibility. Quick, someone wake up the president from his nap and remind him that his party is supposed to be all about fiscal responsibility.

  14. How about if we just note it every time they trot out the “elitist” nonsense?

    And Tom: As I’ve always said, Democrats tax and spend; Republicans don’t tax and still spend.

  15. I heard a radio host discussing Obama’s smoking last night, and he was pointing out that it was being ignored by the media. The media portrays smokers as idiots, and Obama as the Messiah, and their solution was to ignore the smoking.

    And I thought, “Who cares?”

    So much of the presidential campaign has turned into this comments thread – one flaw leads into another flaw, accusation is answered by throwing out, “Oh yeah? Well, your candidate did this!”, but nobody wants to read all the way to the end of the article, so to speak. When I hear ANY accusation, I want to hear more, so I can understand what it means.

    I thought the linked article was a useful tool for evaluating accusations.

    FWIW: I am a right-leaning libertarian, and will probably vote McCain, because he’s closer to my thoughts than Obama. I generally like Obama, and the symbolic victory of having a non-white male president. I just disagree with him. I also think he’s a slick Bill Clinton-esque campaigner, so I’m not sure yet if I actually BELIEVE him. I disagree with McCain on several things, but I think I know who he really is.

    PS: The host was talking about ethics, and people who genuinely struggle to beat addictions, and was using Obama as an example of someone trying to fight an addiction. So you can re-sheath your anti-Hannity swords.

  16. “apparently she was in arrears on the taxes for fours years and were about to default “

    Four years? About to default?

    Maybe you can take that sort of thing casually, John, but those details make my hackles rise.

    If you own so many properties you can’t keep track of them yourself, you hire someone to do it for you. Apparently the particular property was being managed by a trust fund, and the trust fund 1) failed to keep the county tax office advised of their current address, and 2) didn’t notice when they didn’t receive tax bills on the property for four friggin’ years.

    This tells me the McCains aren’t so hot at hiring financial advisors.

    So, do you really want John McCain appointing a Secretary of the Treasury?

    This may be a small thing, in the overall picture. But it’s one more Lego in the monolithic portrait being formed of the McCains as elitist, out of touch members of the American wealthocracy.

  17. Bruce A:

    “So, do you really want John McCain appointing a Secretary of the Treasury?”

    Well, first, the question is how much involvement John McCain has in the financial affairs of his wife; note that the property in question is part of a trust she oversees, not him. I don’t find it unimaginable that he doesn’t have much to do with it, or wants to, given his own public role and senatorial responsibilities. If that were the case, the question would more appropriately be whether we wanted Cindy McCain appointing a Secretary of Treasury, which seems unlikely in any event.

    Second, inasmuch as being the Secretary of the Treasury is not like being an accountant, I don’t think this will be much of a problem. There’s also the matter that any nominee has to get through a conformation process on the Hill, the leadership of which is presently held by the opposing party, which one assumes will be casting a critical eye on the nominees. So, sure, if it comes to that, I’d be fine with McCain appointing a Secretary of the Treasury. I’m personally more concerned with who he would appoint to the Supreme Court.

    Don’t confuse my lack of enthusiasm for elevating this to a genuine scandal as a sign of support for McCain; I won’t be voting for him. But this sort of thing is penny-ante and there are more important things to discuss, regarding his quest for the presidency.

  18. I must agree, it is such a minor issue, there are much more important issues to focus upon.

  19. Tax cuts for the rich, the rich not paying taxes? What’s the big deal? Nothing to see here – though if we can cut back on more unnecessary government regulation and worthless civil servants, maybe the McCains can go for a couple decades without paying.

    As for ‘Well, first, the question is how much involvement John McCain has in the financial affairs of his wife’ – well, according to the best legal and financial advice that the Senator can acquire, everything is fine as long everything is separate, except for when she makes the checks out to him. The part of ‘family values’ that all Republicans can agree on, without hesitation. And very far from a scandal, I’ll certainly agree. Modus operandi? Sure, just like having any campaign spending rules which might, in any sense, just tilt the playing field away from the wealthy.

    This Supreme Court is full of justices whose respect for a level playing field is unbounded – at least for the wealthy. Like eminent domain for private development – when property rights stand in the way of the wealthy acquiring more wealth, then forget the Constitution.

    However, in the end, you’re right – someone not paying a $10,000 tax bill for a few years is no biggie – I do assume, however, that the McCains were treated like a typical scofflaw, meaning that all their credit cards rates went to the legal maximum immediately, with penalties attached. Being a man of the people and all, that is.

  20. not_scottbot:

    “I do assume, however, that the McCains were treated like a typical scofflaw, meaning that all their credit cards rates went to the legal maximum immediately, with penalties attached.”

    Probably not, given that I assume to entity that owed the taxes was the trust, and not Cindy McCain directly. Even if they had, it seems doubtful the McCains would much care, since they’re not exactly living off their credit cards.

    But I’ll tell you what. If the press or whomever finds a pattern of Cindy McCain not neglecting to pay taxes on the properties that she owns (or more accurately, a trust she controls owns) then I’ll be happy to upgrade this event into something I actually care about. Until such time, this goes into the category of “embarrassing error” — good for about ten seconds worth of comedy, not days worth of outrage.

  21. “I assume to entity that owed the taxes was the trust, and not Cindy McCain directly. Even if they had, it seems doubtful the McCains would much care, since they’re not exactly living off their credit cards.”

    Exactly, which is the point you seem to keep missing. Not the non-payment of taxes, which I’ll agree is more “embarrassing error” than anything else. But trust funds and 10,000 dollar tax bills, paid or unpaid, aren’t exactly the kind of thing that helps McCain’s image as “Mister Straight Talk Man of The People running against Mr. Arugula Eating, Latte Drinking Chicago Elitist.”

  22. I don’t miss that point, but a) it’s not a point I care about, since personally speaking I’m aware that John McCain is stinkin’ rich, certainly more so than Barack Obama (who is himself not doing poorly), and b) I doubt that’s the point that people wrenching themselves into outrage about it are trying to make; from what I’ve seen they’re trying to make more of an issue of his competence to run the country.

    What this says to me, personally, is that even rich people make errors with their money, which is not news to me.

  23. John@12:
    Thank you! I so hate that “um” thing people do. It immediately puts my back up, as though the person (who might have a very valid point in there) somehow thinks him/herself much more clever than me, and wishes to make that clear in their response. It’s a good way to make me ignore everything that person has to say, simply because of the way they decided to say it.

  24. I agree with you John on this issue. “Much ado about nothing” is what it looks like to me. I’m more tired of the automatic frothing at the mouth that occurs in response to little items like this. They usually comes from the far reaches of the political spectrum both right and left.

    Let’s put it into perspective. Mistake made, corrected, end of story. Doesn’t impact how I feel about John & Cindy McCain or Al Franken in either case. With our tax code being three feet thick and written is taxese, I’m surprised there isn’t more mistakes made at every income level. Then again, there probably is but only a few happen to newsworthy people

    Let’s say I made a mistake on my taxes last year and am correcting it. Not as quickly as Cindy or Al probably, I’d be making painments to the IRS. I don’t think it’s very newsworthy, do you?

  25. By the way, I’m voting Obama, just in case anyone accuses me of McCain favoritism.

  26. On the subject of riches, Mr. McCain is 25 years older than Mr. Obama. Give Mr. Obama 25 more years in politics and the spotlight, and I think he’ll have out-earned Mr. McCain, whether he’s elected President or not.

    How much money any politician has legally obtained, through whatever legal method, is a non-issue to me. I refuse to resent anyone for their legal money. John McCain came into a great deal of money the same way John Kerry did, and that’s fine with me.

    Now, if you break the law to get the money, that’s a different story…

  27. “How much money any politician has legally obtained, through whatever legal method, is a non-issue to me. ”

    Which is as it should be. It’s the Republicans, however, who’ve made it an issue, from Bill Clinton’s haircut to John Kerry’s wife to John Edwards’ house.

  28. Did I veer off-topic? There seemed to be a lot of “McCain=rich=out of touch” material to comment on.

    I just think you can substitute any political/business/civic leader’s name in the first spot of that equation. The longer they’ve been in politics/business/civics, the bigger the money gets. But it’s a non-partisan phenomenon, a fact of life, and a non-issue for me.

    We were talking about whether money issues are relevant to anyone’s qualifications to be President, so I don’t think it qualifies as “random”. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about what inspired my comment.

    You can disagree with me, and that’s fine. But exactly what did I say that was “crazy talk”?

  29. KMFPL – The last sentence sort of left me with the impression that you were implying someone in the realm of discussion had gotten their money through illicit means. And considering you mentioned McCain and his opponent Kerry…

  30. Ahhhh… now I see!

    Nope, not making any accusations about our current crop. Just offering what I *would* consider an issue. Again, probably no shortage of politicians with illegal money on either side, right? Show me one of those, and I’ll vote against him/her in a heartbeat!

    I suppose that line *was* a bit “random’…

  31. Having known Josh Marshall since high school, I find it amusing that he is judged now to be the arbiter of what is a legitimate scandal and what is not.

  32. ‘Probably not, given that I assume to entity that owed the taxes was the trust, and not Cindy McCain directly.’

    I love the legal fictions that wealth can buy. She has a trust, the trust owns a property in which an elderly relative lives. Who knows? – maybe the relative also has a trust, meaning that when the rent isn’t paid, it isn’t the aunt’s fault either, and also never shows up on her credit reports and she is not penalized.

    To the extent that any organization can commit errors, this is not a scandal. Though four years unpaid taxes goes a bit beyond sloppy, I would think, considering that the property is sold after 5 years to pay the tax bill.

    To the extent that John McCain, man of the people, has carefully constructed a legal framework which allows him to tap massive amounts of wealth without seemingly being responsible for either the acquisition nor the disbursal of that wealth is a symptom, if you prefer, and not a scandal.

    And why I still don’t hear anything about the Keating 5 when discussing McCain’s understanding of fiscal responsibility is still a bit mysterious to me – it isn’t as if McCain and associates haven’t forgotten to dot a few ‘i’s and cross a few ‘t’s in the past. All forgivable errors, based on misunderstandings and crossed communications, and a few late payments for travel expenses.

    Let’s review –
    ‘McCain received $112,000 by 1987 from Keating and Keating’s relatives and employees to McCain’s Senate campaign, more than any of the other Senators. [1] In September 1987 National Thrift News was the first media outlet to break the story.[2] In October 1989 The Arizona Republic reported that in addition to campaign contributions, McCain’s wife and her father had invested $359,100 in a Keating shopping center in April 1986, a year before McCain met with the regulators. The paper also reported that the McCains, sometimes accompanied by their daughter and baby-sitter, had made at least nine trips at Keating’s expense, sometimes aboard the American Continental Corporation (parent of Lincoln) jet. Three of the trips were made during vacations to Keating’s opulent Bahamas retreat at Cat Cay. McCain also did not pay Keating for some of the trips until years after they were taken, after he learned that Keating was in trouble over Lincoln. [3] Lincoln Savings and Loan’s collapse is said to have cost taxpayers $3.4 billion [4].’

    Actually, the real point of that excerpt above is to point out why the McCain’s have various financial constructions – in certain professional circles, it known as plausible deniability. In others, the joke about tax avoidance and tax evasion – the first is legal, the second isn’t – also applies neatly.

    But if being involved in a bank collapse which cost us 3.4 billion dollars didn’t hurt McCain’s political career, I’ll agree a piddling 10,000 dollars here or there won’t likely matter at all. I’ll even bet that McCain wouldn’t get out of bed for less than 10,000 dollars anyways. Old, possibly DC only joke about the Bushes and Clintons – the Clintons were involved in financial messes that the Bushes wouldn’t even consider as a rounding error for their own corrupt dealings, demonstrating why the old rich are the old rich. And this was before we all saw how much a Supreme Court appointment or two is worth when used strategically to ensure that the revenue streams remain in the right hands.

  33. Sounds like she just needs a new Accountant or Business Manager. After all, people with the McCain’s worth and power don’t usually pay their own bills… It’s when people KNOW about taxes that are owed and don’t pay them that irkes me.

  34. not_scottbot:

    “I love the legal fictions that wealth can buy.”

    It doesn’t take wealth to do stuff like that, merely knowledge. When I moved to Ohio, I incorporated and put my wife on staff, because in doing so I was able to get her and my daughter much cheaper health insurance as a business than as an individual (and it was then tax-deductible). It didn’t cost much to do and the financial benefits were tangible. Likewise, we own property we don’t live in and have considered transferring ownership to our corporation or tax and liability purposes.

    The point is that after a certain point — a point rather below what’s commonly thought of as “wealth” — it makes sense, economically and legally, to create corporate structures to handle one’s investments and properties; I’m not entirely sure how you can fault the McCain’s for doing that.

    “four years unpaid taxes goes a bit beyond sloppy, I would think, considering that the property is sold after 5 years to pay the tax bill.”

    Well, yes, which is indeed why this is not a scandal — if the McCain’s were attempting some sort of tax dodge, one that ends up with them losing an expensive property on the basis of less than $10,000 in taxes due is unlikely to have been the way to do it. There’s nothing about this, as far as I can see, that tracks as anything more than an error, which makes trying to tie this into a larger picture regarding McCain and his financial history (or policies) so pointless.

  35. Last Friday or so, some guy on Redstate.com was trying to whip people into a froth over the fact that Obama had some unpaid parking tickets when he was in college– when somebody actually mentioned it to him in 2001 or so, he paid them, but until then, gasp, eek, unpaid PARRRRRKING tickets! It’s the same thing.

    Maybe a certain amount of this is actually necessary. Maybe we need one or two loonies on either side bringing this stupid stuff up, so that the vast majority of the country can roll their eyes at it. Maybe it helps folks keep a sense of perspective. No, wait, six years of Bill Clinton’s penis didn’t do that, so no, that doesn’t work. Bother.

  36. John is right, and no good deed goes unpunished.

    The McCain’s have a prenuptual agreement which means that Cindy’s money is just that, hers not his. From her personal funds she apparently set up a trust to provide housing for her aunt ( not his). The trust was apparently small enough that no one at the bank was paying a lot of attention to it and some bills didn’t get paid. There is no way that this is connected to John McCain by even the smallest legal thread. Absolutely nothing to do with him. Not his money; not his family; not his house; not his trust.

    The fact that this was all that Newsweek could find after what was obviously a very in depth search, implies that the rest of her affairs are being handled more professionally.

    The Keating 5 on the other hand features John’s direct involvement and has always been and will continue to be fair game. The fact that it hasn’t amounted to anything yet probably means that there isn’t anything there, but who knows.

    Al Franken was the president, CEO, and chief product of his own company. In conjunction with his accountant he made a series of decisions not to pay taxes in over twenty states over a number of years. In addition he negelected to pay unemployment taxes on his staff in new York. Both of those actions are directly his and highlight valid issues. They resonate with every small business owner in the country who has been faced with similar decisions. He should and did answer to the public for them.

    The more interesting comparison to me at least is how the two wives are being treated by the media. Michelle stands up at an official campaign function and makes a public statement on behalf of her husband. Subsequent criticism of those remarks is labeled an attack on Obama’s poor wife and deemed out of bounds. However digging through Cindy’s receipts seems to be fair game.

    Scalzi is right, there are much better things to focus on.

  37. mjfgates — the Red State post started out by saying that it was a frivolous issue. His point however was not that Obama had parking tickets, but that Obama signed a statement when he got his license to practice law in Illinois that specifically asked about unpaid parking tickets. He stated for the record that he had none. It was not a trivial number of tickets and Obama claims to have been completely ignorant of their existence. Most people find that hard to believe.

    Step out of your political bubble for a moment and consider a hypothetical scenario:

    You come home from work and your wife greets you at the door with a notice from the local municipality that you are late on eight or nine parking tickets. You look her in the eye and say ” I have no idea what they are talking about, I don’t ever remember getting a single ticket …”

    Does she buy it?

    It’s possible that you could be telling the truth but is it likely?

    Should this count in the election. No
    Does it resonate with a lot of voters? yes

    Finally, if several of those Obama tickets were for parking in a handicap space, would that change things for you?

  38. John,

    Thank you for your sensible take on the Cindy McCain issue. And, in spite of its underlying common sense, isn’t it amazing that my fellow Obama supporters still want to make an issue of it.

    Yikes people, Cindy McCain’s back taxes and Obama’s unpaid parking tickets are NOT issues. Nor are they symptoms on either party’s part of neglect, negligence, petty arrogance or any other aspersions one wants to cast on both Obama and McCain.

    Ooops, I already wasted 2 paragraphs on this ridiculousness.

    Issues! Come on people.

    Again, thank yo Mr. Scalzi.

    Rick York

  39. I think this event has more significance than you give it credit. I agree that McCain wasn’t even remotely evading taxes. However, it does show the hypocrisy of trying to make the claim of being a “regular Joe.” How many Americans (especially in today’s economy) can forget about a piece of property and just pay the back-taxes immediately? The fact of the matter is that this shows how different McCain is from most of the country. For him to have the gall to accuse Obama of being elitist in light of this tax “oversight” is preposterous.

  40. The legal fiction which a trust represents requires wealth – otherwise, no trust. Generally, the laws concerning trusts are quite carefully written so that a normal citizen with average income and savings will never have access to the advantages provided by one.

    Certainly any number of legal fictions are available for anyone willing to pay the various fees, and who either has the necessary education or good legal advice.

    And just as certainly, things slip through the cracks without being noticed. It is just most Americans don’t consider the amount of money under discussion to be trivial, and for which they can just whip out the checkbook and pay.

    And I have never said ‘tax dodging’ – it is simply, just like the travel expenses on Keating’s jet, the checkbook only gets pulled out when it becomes politically necessary, and not one second before. Though in this case, maybe by the 5th year, it would have been pulled out anyways.

  41. So what happened to the whole “candidate’s wives are out of bounds” thing? Didn’t last very long, did it?

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