Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Raising taxes as a character issue

John Edwards’ second presidential bid may prove to be no more successful than his first, but right now he is arguably running the most fascinating campaign in the Democratic field. Consider this exchange last Sunday with Tim Russert, during a discussion of Edwards’ detailed pitch for universal health care:

Russert asked, “Would you be willing to raise taxes in order to help pay for this?”

Edwards replied, “Yes, we’ll have to raise taxes.”

Russert, apparently unaccustomed to hearing unvarnished honesty from a politician, soon asked a follow-up question, just to make sure that he had heard Edwards correctly. Russert queried, “But you’d be willing to increase taxes to provide health care?”

Edwards again replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

In American politics, such an utterance is traditionally viewed as suicide; conservative bloggers in recent days have been busy shoveling dirt on Edwards’ political corpse, because they know (at least from our recent history) that there is no way a candidate – especially of the liberal Democratic variety – can win an election by promising to thrust his hand into the pockets of the American people. The Club for Growth, an activist group, already has its sound bite ready: “If elected president, John Edwards will tax you until you scream.”

And I certainly remember the night of July 19, 1984, when Walter Mondale accepted the Democratic presidential nomination with these words: “Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” I heard that, and I thought, “This election is over.” Mondale went on to lose 49 states; he probably would have lost anyway – this was during the apogee of the Reagan “It’s Morning in America” era – but that pledge sealed his fate.

So has John Edwards lost his mind, or what? It has been true for a long time, of course, that most Americans are taxed far less than their counterparts in other western democracies, but the prevailing ethos in this nation is rugged individualism, not the social compact. The anti-tax ideology has reigned here at least since Reagan rode it into office more than a quarter century ago. Surely Edwards knows all this. So why give voice to such a blasphemy?

There are several explanations:

1. Edwards doesn’t believe it’s necessarily a blasphemy anymore. First of all, he is not proposing to raise taxes on everybody; he wants to finance universal health care by erasing the Bush tax cuts that currently benefit those Americans who make more than $200,000 a year. He is calculating that middle-class Americans (the heart of the electorate) would have no problem with such a proposal; indeed, there is considerable evidence that the affluent have benefited far more from the Bush tax cuts than anybody else. And a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll suggests that people are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. When they were asked whether they “would be willing to pay higher taxes so that everyone can have health insurance,” 53 percent said yes and 40 percent said no.

2. Let us not forget the political calculus. Edwards is waging an uphill fight for the Democratic nomination; to win over the liberals who dominate voting in the early primaries, he needs to outflank Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the left. Therefore, his populist tax-the-rich-for-health-care pitch is potentially good politics. The activist Democrats of Iowa, many of whom are union members, won’t wince at that kind of proposal. They may well challenge Clinton and Obama and the others to come up with something equally bold. Edwards knows that his best hope is to put his rivals on the defensive.

3. This is also about image. Edwards was widely dismissed during his ’04 bid as a substance-free pretty boy with great hair - or, in the favored parlance of that year, a “Breck Girl.” Therefore, the health care plan is also intended to be a comment on Edwards’ maturation of character. In other words, the message is: If he lacked substance in 2004, he has it now (here is an analysis of his health care substance). And the message is: if he seemed too soft and even inoffensive in 2004, well, he is willing to be tough and combative now. And at a time when the credibility of the Bush White House is at low ebb, Edwards is trying to spin his willingness to raise taxes as a testament to his character. As he said the other day, “I think honesty is what’s needed in leadership in this country today.”

We’ll see how far he gets with this strategy. Assume, for the moment, that Edwards can wrest the nomination away from the big dogs. Those aforementioned poll numbers – 53 percent willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for universal health care, 40 percent unwilling – still seem somewhat soft to me. Republicans and their surrogates have already demonstrated, during the first year of Bill Clinton’s administration, that they are adept at sowing doubt about health care reform, and suggesting that taxes will be raised without any corresponding improvement in health care delivery. Back in October 2003, an ABC-Washington Post poll reported that, by a margin of 79 to 17 percent, Americans were willing to choose health care for all even if it meant higher taxes…yet that mood collapsed under the weight of the anti-HillaryCare offensive.

And there has rarely been convincing evidence that underdog populism is a winner; middle-class Americans aren’t necessarily anxious to soak the rich, they want to be rich. That’s a central tenet of the American dream, which arguably trumps Edwards’ ’04 formulation of the Two Americas, which invited the have-nots to resent the haves.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Edwards needs to rattle the chessboard at the earliest opportunity – or risk being squashed by the “Hillary is inevitable” story line. Indeed, if this new report is on the mark, doleful Republicans are already girding for her ascendance.