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Thursday Nov 16, 2006

Harry Reid: Trapped In The GOP Tax Frame

Over at Hullabaloo, Digby laments incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's embrace of tax cuts, and calls for liberals to "challenge the conservative consensus" of low taxes "with new language and new ways of thinking about government".

Digby also kindly notes that Wait! Don't Move To Canada! has something to offer on this subject.

Specifically, the book discusses how we can reframe the tax debate on favorable, and more accurate terms.

Here is the key excerpt (pgs 43-45):

[President Bill] Clinton's deficit reduction plan [which included higher taxes] worked. In 1996 the deficit had been cut by 60 percent and the economy improved, creating 10 million jobs. Republicans who had been preaching that Clinton's tax policy would bring about economic apocalypse looked foolish.

That's the kind of sea-changing development that can be used to reframe a debate.

Instead of continuing to accept the Republican frame, Clinton could have articulated that Democrats support levels of taxation that are fair to people at all income levels and adequate enough to carry out the responsibilities that the people ask of their government. Republicans, on the other hand, support inadequate taxation, so our government can't properly function, with unfair tax giveaways to their corporate donors and those who make more than $200,000 each year.

That's a frame consistent with the principle of representative, responsive, and responsible government. It does not say that tax cuts are always good, or that tax increases are always good. It simply makes the commonsense point that a responsible level of taxation, properly financing our government, is healthy for our overall quality of life.

However, Clinton did not seize the opportunity. He stuck with the Republican frame and continued to argue that tax cuts are the path to economic growth.

At an October 1995 fundraiser, Clinton told the crowd, "I think I raised [taxes] too much." He then campaigned for re-election on another promise of tax cuts, though he distinguished his plan from his opponent's by promising fiscally prudent "targeted tax cuts," as opposed to a "risky $550 billion tax scheme" which would lead to cuts in Medicare and Social Security. It became a debate over whose tax cuts were better, and with a good economy at his back, Clinton won.

The same debate repeated itself in 2000. Then-Texas governor George W. Bush honed the argument against targeted tax cuts by accusing Al Gore of being a "pick and chooser," while Bush would cut taxes for "everybody who pays taxes." This was no knockout punch -- again, Bush's arguments did not win him the most votes -- but it did find the rhetorical weakness in the case for "targeted tax cuts." If tax cuts were so wonderful, why shouldn't everybody get them?

And so, after three elections in a row where one professed tax cutter faced off against another, President Bush was unabashed at claiming a mandate for huge cuts. Democrats, having accepted the benefit of tax cuts, had no principled foundation with which to fight back. Bush quickly rammed a tax cut bill through Congress with bipartisan support.

Even though Clinton put the nation on sound fiscal footing, he left his handiwork extremely vulnerable by not articulating the guiding principles that got the job done. Bush took full advantage and put Clinton's balanced budget in the shredder.

Granted, Harry Reid is in a tough spot, because nothing was said in the midterm election campaign to reframe the tax debate.

But the budget has still been shredded. The bill will eventually come due.

And an argument will need to be made that our current level of taxation isn't adequate for the government that the people need and want, if Democrats are to build a mandate to do what's necessary -- instead of ramming something through in a panic without a mandate, which can spark a political backlash (see 1994).

By keeping us in the GOP's tax frame, Harry Reid is not building that mandate.

That mandate needs to be earned, by leading public discussion -- perhaps sparked by congressional hearings on tax reform -- offering proposals based on the "fair and adequate" principle, and building public support.

If that's done now, we will have a much easier time discussing these issues in 2008.

And if you think you can't successfully engage voters to get their buy-in on tax reform, remember that Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia did it just a few years ago.

Posted by Bill Scher on Nov 16, 2006 email post email Spotlight / / You are in Taxes/ Wait! Don't Move To Canada!
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