In a New York Times op-ed today, Ramesh Ponnuru claims that "Mr. McCain’s plans would have cut taxes more than Mr. Obama’s for a lot of middle-class families, but Republicans rarely bothered to point that out." However, the Tax Policy Center found that Obama would have cut taxes more than McCain for the second, third, and fourth quintiles of the income distribution (PDF):
It is true that McCain would cut taxes more than Obama for the 80th to 90th percentile ($111,645-$160,972), which in certain high-income areas like Manhattan might be considered "middle class." However, in terms of the national income distribution, those people are very well-off. Ponnuru's statement is misleading as a general description of reality.
I'm not sure, though, that [the Tax Policy Center] counted McCain's refundable health-care tax credit, which was pretty progressive, for the purpose of that computation. Based on the discussion in that section of the report, it sounds as though it didn't. Also, as Rich Lowry pointed out, the New York Times gave many examples of middle-class families who would fare better under the McCain plan. Not all, by any means: Families with kids in college would often have done better under the Obama plan. But enough to make my claim neither untrue nor misleading.
If you read Ponnuru's statement in context, however, his wording suggests that he was treating tax policy and health care policy as separate issues (my criticism above was based on that interpretation):
Yes, Mr. McCain’s plans would have cut taxes more than Mr. Obama’s for a lot of middle-class families, but Republicans rarely bothered to point that out. Mr. McCain’s campaign smartly promised to double the tax exemption for children, but the candidate seemed unfamiliar with the idea, repeatedly describing it incorrectly. Likewise, he had an innovative health care plan, but he rarely explained how it would help the average voter.
Is Ponnuru right about the combined distributional effects? He doesn't mention that McCain's tax credit is offset for many families by removing the tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance. Still, if we consider the same Tax Policy Center analysis that I cited above and combine the distributional estimates for the candidates' tax and health care plans (which includes direct subsidies under Obama's plan), the percentage change in 2009 after-tax income appears to favor Obama for the lowest two quintiles and McCain for the highest three. The key point, though, is that McCain's plan would have shifted millions of people into the individual insurance market -- something most health care experts find highly problematic. Also, the value of McCain's tax credit is not indexed to inflation and would therefore decline in value over time.