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John McCain has been taking hits from members of his own party who practically accuse him of being a Republican Robespierre. This is, of course, a dreadful calumny. The man's conservative credentials are impeccable. Still, he is being accused of fomenting "class warfare" by proposing a tax plan that is somewhat fairer to middle and lower income groups than the one advanced by George W. Bush.

"Apostasy," swooned the conservative columnist Robert Novak, who claims "conservatives who back John McCain as a Republican presidential candidate of principle were stunned two weeks ago when he said 60 percent of Bush's tax cut would go to the richest 10 percent of Americans."

The one thing Republicans can never forgive another Republican is breaking ranks on the question of who is more deserving of tax breaks or, worse, pointing out the basic unfairness of the standard Republican position.

Well, the conservatives can relax, because this hateful smear on McCain's name is entirely undeserved. It all got started because he hates tobacco companies. Hell, even smokers hate tobacco companies. Then it snowballed because he wants to reform campaign finance. This is a smear, too, because as a fund-raiser McCain has demonstrated that his personal commitment to reform does not exclude raising money right up there with the pros.

What does a man have to do to prove his conservative manhood? Didn't McCain go to bat for Lowell Paxson, the moneybags who wanted to take over a public TV station in Pittsburgh? And doesn't the fact that Paxson had arranged for $25,000 in political contributions to McCain prove the senator's innocence of charges he's too fastidious at raising funds? And finally, doesn't McCain flying around to campaign appearances on Paxson's corporate jet prove anything?

Those of us who fly coach and pay for our own plane tickets know how damnably uncomfortable flying has become. We can appreciate McCain's addiction to private jets.

If conservatives have a complaint, it can only be that after the Paxson scandal broke, McCain expediently, not to say cravenly, canceled a lavish fund-raiser Paxson had gallantly planned for his helpful friend, leaving the TV magnate stuck with 1,200 crab cakes.

McCain has a spotless record of leveraging his position as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to raise funds from the telecommunications industry his committee oversees. This alone should prove his conservative credentials. But for those cynical doubters who still don't trust him, I can cite no less authority than the American Prospect, perhaps the nation's most influential liberal publication.

In it, John B. Judis, author of the book "The Paradox of American Democracy," confirms that "in his role as chairman, he has revealed an economic conservatism as doctrinaire and illogical as anything exhibited by . . . Steve Forbes." McCain, Judis certifies, has "sponsored some of the worst legislation in Congress."

The charge that McCain is inciting class warfare is preposterous unless you argue that he has, along with other Republicans, been fighting a class war on behalf of the richest 10 percent of Americans. With Democrats scared witless of being called liberals, this is, in fact, the only class war now being waged in America, and it has been exceedingly successful.

Just how successful can be seen from a new study released last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute. It found that the incomes of the poorest fifth of American families rose less than 1 percent from 1988 to 1998. In the same period, incomes of the richest fifth rose 15 percent.

On his record, this is a trend I would trust John McCain to nurture as assiduously as Steve Forbes and George W. Bush. The apostasy of his tax plan is one of those sins that amounts to a parking ticket on his rap sheet, a meaningless campaign excess, a boyish prank. A promise hastily made before a crucial primary is not something that destroys a career of good deeds for the wealthy and privileged.


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