Wednesday, December 30, 2015

By All Means, Put A Price Tag On Progressive Values

One of my greatest frustrations over the years with the course of Democratic campaigns is the manner in which they treat the issue of taxes.  They have allowed Republicans to turn what Oliver Wendell Holmes rightly described as the price for civilization into a partisan weapon, as if the market-place Confidence Fairy was all that was needed to grant them the things they want the government to provide, from M1 Abrams tanks to vaginal wands.  Or, for that matter, as though paying for all of the things all of us need with debt instead of cash was somehow a more "conservative" way of financing the national government.

A big part of the problem is that Democrats have allowed Republicans to talk in not-so-glittering generalities, linking "taxes" and "tax increases" on "wasteful spending" and "social programs."  The reality is that 80 cents of every tax dollars goes to pay for three things;  Social Security (including Medicare), defense spending, and interest on the national debt.  In other words, three of the most sacred cows there are when it comes to the U.S. budget.  By the time you get thought most of the remaining 20 cents, past things like education and transportation spending (again, broadly supported) you're down to maybe a penny or so for those awful "social programs."  And some of those, like unemployment insurance, are things that people can't do without in tough times.

See what I just did?  I got rid of all of the empty rhetoric about "waste, fraud, and abuse," and actually turned the federal tax-and-spend debate into something that uses numbers everybody can understand.  It's not such an original idea:  Ronald Reagan did something like this during his first year in office, in an attempt to illustrate the damage done to the U.S. dollar by inflation (and to sell specious tax cuts that did far more damage to the dollar than inflation ever did).  And it played a role in redefining the discussion about federal spending that persists to this day.

Why can't Democrats do the same thing?  Well, as it turns out, maybe they can, as Bernie Sanders showed during the most recent Democratic presidential debate.  Sanders was attacked by Hillary Clinton for proposing a plan that she claimed would require an unaffordable hike on middle-class taxes.  It was classic Bill-and-Hillary rhetoric:  out-GOP the GOP when it comes to protecting the middle class on taxes.  But Bernie turned the tables on her rather cleverly:
Now, when Secretary Clinton says, “I’m not going raise taxes on the middle class,” let me tell you what she is saying. She is disagreeing with FDR on Social Security, LBJ on Medicare and with the vast majority of progressive Democrats in the House and the Senate, who today are fighting to end the disgrace of the United States being the only major country on Earth that doesn’t provide paid family and medical leave.
What the legislation is is $1.61 a week. Now, you can say that’s a tax on the middle class. It will provide three months paid family and medical leave for the working families of this country. I think, Secretary Clinton, $1.61 a week is a pretty good investment.
See what Bernie did?  He did what I did a few minutes ago.  He costed out his thinking in a way that gave the American people a kitchen-table view of the cost of his proposal.  $1.61 a week.  Not even the cost of busfare.

And here's where it could get really interesting.  What if you paired that kitchen-table analysis with something that wasn't a  middle-class tax hike, like a tax on derivatives or a reduction of corporate subsides.  What capitalist takes pride in taking money from the government?  Only in America.  Let's see how much pride the GOP takes in that form of American exceptionalism.

This isn't brain surgery (except, perhaps, to Ben Carson).  This is so easy.  All that's needed is a Democrat who's willing to pick up the rhetorical baton Bernie provided and run with it.  And it wouldn't hurt if the DNC stopped scheduling debates for nights when nobody is watching, in an effort to protect Hillary from her own mistakes.  Memo to Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz:  You've got a good product.  Find a better way to market it.

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