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Straight talk on Social Security?

From NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy
Since his appearance on ABC's "This Week" last Sunday, McCain and his campaign have been dogged by this question: Would a McCain Administration raise Social Security payroll taxes?

The answer hasn't been all that clear.

On Sunday, McCain told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, "I have said and will say -- I will say that everything has to be on the table if we're going to reach a bipartisan agreement" on Social Security.

"So that means payroll tax increases are on the table as well?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"There is nothing that's off the table," McCain replied. "I have my positions, and I'll articulate them. But nothing's off the table."

McCain quickly came under fire from conservatives -- including the Club for Growth and Wall Street Journal editorial page -- for backing off a pledge he had made on several occasions not to raise taxes. So far this week, McCain has repeatedly tried to clarify his positions. But he also has stopped short of saying that, in a McCain White House, payroll tax increases would be out of the question in negotiations to fix Social Security.

At a town hall in Nevada on Tuesday, McCain did his best to put this tax issue to rest. "My friends, I'm gonna keep current tax rates low and cut others -- not because I want to make the rich richer, but because it keeps jobs in America and creates new ones and gets our economy moving again by making sure that you spend money as you see fit not the government spending it," McCain said in his opening remarks.

Yet later in that event, in response to a question about job losses and the flight of manufacturing overseas, McCain said that Social Security needed to be fixed through bipartisan negotiations, leaving open the idea of a payroll tax increase. "You express the concern and sorrow that so many people all over America are experiencing today -- Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, vegetarian -- no matter who it is -- sitting down together, solving the problem. Social Security is going bankrupt -- sit down and fix it together the way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did many years ago." That fix in the 1980s included tax increases and benefit cuts.

Then at a fundraiser that same day on the banks of Lake Tahoe, McCain told donors that the rumors they might have heard about his openness to payroll tax increases aren't true. "Some people say, 'Well, McCain says he wants to sit down and work these issues out,'" he said, alluding to the notion that tax increases would be part of such a negotiation. "Of course I do, but I have a clear record, a clear record of opposing tax increases and I'll stand by that record. But I also say to you what you know well: Americans are sick and tired of the partisanship and gridlock which afflicts our nation's capital."

The message? Although McCain himself is opposed to tax increases, Washington is full of "partisanship and gridlock," and he wants to "sit down and work these issues out," which could mean tax increases. Right?

Well, on Wednesday at a town hall in Colorado, McCain once again vowed that he will not raise taxes. "I want to look you in the eye. I will not raise your taxes nor support a tax increase. I will not do it," McCain said.

McCain also announced his specific opposition to increased Social Security taxes saying, "On Social Security, [Obama] wants to raise Social Security taxes. I am opposed to raising taxes on Social Security. I want to fix the system without raising taxes... But we need to sit down together, my friends. You expect us, Republicans and Democrats, to sit down and fix Social Security so that future generations of Americans can have the same benefits that present day retirees have."

And at a fundraiser in Kansas City on Wednesday evening, McCain previewed what these 'sit-downs' might look like. "I am opposed to raising taxes," McCain said. "Sen. Obama wants to raise your taxes. He wants to raise your taxes and if any negotiation I might have, when I go in my position will be that I am opposed to raising taxes. But we have to work together to save Social Security."

The message? In any negotiations on Social Security as president, McCain will go in saying that he's against increases in payroll taxes. But as part of these negotiations, it is possible that such an increase would become necessary for a bipartisan solution. Right?