Tactics and Substance in the 2004 Elections GoogleNews: Howard Dean

February 12, 2004

by V

Jonathan Cohn on Dean's tax policy

It's too bad this piece hasn't gotten more attention. Cohn is one of the more sensible writers at TNR:

The New Republic Online: WHY DEAN IS RIGHT ON TAXES: Tax Evasion (January 26)
"Some in my party want to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class," John Kerry declared recently, in a typical broadside. "Too many middle-class people are getting pummeled everywhere they turn." Several polls suggest that most Democrats agree: The middle-class tax cuts should stay...

Maybe advocating total repeal of the tax cuts really is political suicide. But, whatever Dean decides to do, there's another question that commentators rarely ask: In policy terms, is preserving part of the Bush tax cuts a good idea? Dean has said no, that, in the end, "middle-class people [would] get a better deal from President Dean." And he's almost certainly right.

...The conventional wisdom seems to be that, since the Bush cuts are so heavily weighted toward the well-off, the middle-class cuts must make up only a small fraction of their overall cost. But the conventional wisdom is wrong. Roughly speaking, the tax cuts Kerry and the rest suggest keeping amount to half of the cost of President Bush's cuts overall. In other words, the monetary difference between total repeal and partial repeal is a full $2 trillion. Although nobody talks about it, that's an enormous difference.

...The choice, then, really comes down to this: Is the middle class better off with the parts of the Bush tax cuts that Dean's rivals would leave in place or with the $2 trillion less in deficits that Dean would produce over the next decade?

...none of this is to deny the obvious political perils of Dean's (and Gephardt's) approach. If Democratic spin-meister Chris Lehane (currently on Clark's payroll) can demagogue their proposals as a middle-class tax hike, think what Karl Rove could do. But the media has largely abdicated its responsibility to report on the substance of this issue, focusing almost exclusively on how Dean's stance will play in the campaign.

...If a candidate like Dean is willing to risk popular backlash by running against middle-class tax cuts, then he probably has far more resolve than his rivals to fight for fiscal responsibility. Maybe that's not the smartest thing to do politically, but it's the right thing to do substantively. Somebody ought to mention that once in a while.
The problem is, of course, that Dean's repeal-them-all position is easily demagogued, and Kerry in particular has done so in most of his speeches. This may be a big reason why Iowa rejected both Dean and Gephardt.

I argued before and I will state again, for all the good it will do, that I think Dean should change his tax stance while explicitly noting that it's the voters who have spoken and convinced him to do so.

The responsible position is clearly unpopular; why not be pragmatic about it (like he is about getting a health care program that can pass a Republican Congress, not the Best Health Care Program Ever) and get elected with a more popular plan and then attempt to govern responsibly?

It would take away a big stick that Kerry's been beating him with, it would show some humility and flexibility, and it would show some strategic thinking (which I haven't seen enough of from the Dean campaign).

Then, hell, once he was in office he could pull an Arnold - "I see now I was wrong, and we must in fact repeal all the tax cuts..."
Posted by V at February 12, 2004 08:26 AM

why not be pragmatic about it [...] and get elected with a more popular plan and then attempt to govern responsibly?

Because he is a fundamentally honest person who treats American voters like adults and believes that they'll eat their spinach in order to have their ice cream later.

It makes me want to move to Vermont.

We'll get the government we deserve; more's the pity.

Posted by: J at February 12, 2004 08:40 AM

I think that's been one of the campaign's biggest problems: the United States is not as sensible about taxes and government (and as willing to 'eat its spinach' ) as Vermont, and the campaign simply didn't adjust itself enough.

Posted by: V at February 12, 2004 08:42 AM

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