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McCaskill Plane Flap Strikes at Her Strengths

I don’t think that Claire McCaskill’s private travel on her personal plane, and the associated tax liability, means anything in the abstract. It doesn’t have anything to do with her ability to do her job. But she’s been so damn self-righteous about fiscal responsibility and being a good steward of the people’s money, that I have to think this is a major blow to her re-election efforts. And it’s a cascading problem. First it came out that she billed taxpayers for her personal travel. Then it came out that she used the plane for a political trip. And now there’s a back tax issue.

McCaskill told reporters that after the political trip on the plane was reported, she conducted an extensive audit of all the times she had used it. That search turned up the fact that she had not paid personal property taxes on the aircraft, totaling $287,273.

The senator said it was an honest mistake. Not all states charge personal property taxes, and because planes are not registered with the state or the county, she was never billed.

“I’m being held accountable, like I should be,” she said. “I made this mistake.”

In political terms, McCaskill’s doing the right thing by owning the mistake rather than trying to cover it up. But politicians have brands, and McCaskill’s has been fiscal probity. Never mind that McCaskill did the audit that revealed the $287,000 liability, which came from failing to pay personal property taxes. Contrast that with this ad from 2006 where McCaskill states “we have paid every dime of our taxes.” Or this, via Evan McMorris-Santoro, where she laments Tom Daschle’s tax woes.

That’s just going to be a lot for her to live down, although there’s plenty of time until the 2012 election. McCaskill has based her career on thriftiness with public money, and this issue, while not a direct parallel, casts a shadow over that. I think it’s going to be very difficult for her to overcome.

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David Dayen

David Dayen