Don't Fear the "T"-word

(Guest post by Emma White)

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick made the case for the importance of taxation the other day in the Washington Post, talking about the schools, roads, and other services our tax dollars pay for and closing:

     I’d like to think that the most prosperous nation in human history can have both freedom and security. I think we have reached a point where my personal success is not threatened by a program to help our parents retire with dignity. Voters are smart enough to see that taxes are one of the ways we get those things. They are the price we pay for civilization.

Patrick’s words struck me as a contrast to Democrats’ typical silence or statements along the lines of the following from Harry Reid’s website:

     I have led the fight to provide tax relief for working families, reinstate the state sales tax deduction, and reform the IRS.  In today’s difficult economic climate, I understand how important it is to ensure tax relief is focused on providing help to hard-working families, and to encouraging investment and job creation.

Harry Reid argues that the “relief” should be concentrated on working and middle income families rather than the rich, but his language accepts the idea that taxes are a problem to be solved, rather than a tool to provide services we could not pay for or arrange as individuals. 

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Obsession with moderates is excessive

(Cross-posted from Think it Through.)

The rising number of political independents has led to the misguided conclusion that we need to change party primaries so that our choices in general elections are more “moderate” politicians not tied to the bases of either of the two parties. Instead, we need more varied voices within the two parties.

The proportion of independents reached a plurality after the 2008 elections and has remained the largest chunk of the electorate.  The latest Pew Research Center poll has 31% of Americans identifying as Democrats, 22% as Republicans, and 37% as independents. The three-year jump in the number of independents has come at the expense of both parties, but more from Republicans than Democrats.

You often hear that this potential party de-alignment is good for the country because it will bring more political “moderates” to government and these moderates supposedly always find better solutions to national problems than those who follow a core ideology of right or left. But, when you talk to voters, the people who call themselves political moderates are often less knowledgeable about issues and solutions to political problems. They place themselves in the middle of the road because they do not know or care enough about issues to ride on one side or the other.

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As gas prices rise, public seeks alternatives to oil

(Cross-posted from Think it Through.)

Guest post by Emma White.

With gas topping $4 a gallon in many places, the prevailing wisdom in DC suggests that calling for more domestic oil drilling is a political winner for politicians, and those who oppose new drilling will pay a political price.  President Obama embraced this perspective last week, offering his own plan to expand offshore oil drilling in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic seaboard.

It is certainly true that many Americans are open to increasing offshore drilling in the U.S.  The Pew Research Center found in March, when gas prices had already risen sharply, that 57% favor allowing increased oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters.

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Nation needs a Democrat to challenge Obama

(Cross-posted from Think it Through.)

The nation desperately needs a Democrat to challenge President Barack Obama for the party’s nomination for president in 2012.

The tipping point came last week when Jackie Calmes reported in The New York Times: “When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests [in Wisconsin and Ohio], they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters.”

The Times story goes on to say that administration officials saw the events beyond Washington as a “distraction” from the optimistic “win the future” message that the president unveiled in his State of the Union speech. He spent last Friday talking about the need to “educate and innovate” with Jeb Bush in Florida on one of the president’s begging-for-bipartisanship road shows.

That’s right – a Democratic president considers the men and women who have stood out in the cold in the Wisconsin winter to have a voice in their government a distraction from his positive message.

If you take all of Obama’s positions – too cautious to curtail the behavior of the Wall Street bankers, signing onto a health care plan that amounts to what the Republicans offered ten years ago, jawboning about overregulation of businesses, supporting a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, pandering to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at a time when big business is working with Republican governors to kill off what is left of organized rights for workers – you come to the conclusion that he should run as the Republican nominee. And he might win that nomination, if this were 1968 instead of 2012. His positions could fit comfortably into a debate among Richard Nixon, George Romney, and Charles Percy.

Obama’s theme of educate and innovate to win the future is positive and forward-looking, and has the perfect pitch to serenade the Rotarian Republicans of the ‘70s in Grand Rapids and Peoria. But not this year. The Republican party of 2012 has become enslaved to a narrow brood of Christian fundamentalists and extreme taxophobics – people that do not want government to do anything except what they can easily see helps them directly. That is 24 percent of voters.

The country needs someone to offer a completely different vision of America that is held by millions of Americans who do not fear enforcing the antitrust laws against heath insurance companies, or putting Wall Street executives in jail, or raising taxes on wealthy – and even non-wealthy – people for the public good.

The country may turn away from such an agenda, but it deserves the debate to be something other than how big a tax cut we should give to each other. If Obama runs unopposed, the nation will continue its slide into selfishness and a government philosophy of every person for himself or herself. His presidency has ignored the country’s moral and material depression caused by government and corporate malfeasance, and the need for institutional change.

America needs a candidate to do for the nation on a number of issues – chiefly taxes and the relationship between government, business, and individuals – what governor Scott Walker did for Wisconsin on unions. That is, to place the choices clearly in front of people rather than avoid what is really going on.

Right now it seems possible that the Republicans will nominate someone to push this debate about choices to a “Wisconsin” level.

It would be refreshing if the Democratic nomination process could at least begin such a debate – the way Bobby Kennedy’s candidacy forced Hubert Humphrey to reevaluate his position on the Vietnam war in 1968 and the way Alan Cranston and Gary Hart generated a national attention and a stronger Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, on nuclear disarmament and gay rights in 1984.

In the narrative of American politics in the early 21st century there is a role on the left for someone to claim. We now know that role will not be filled by Barack Obama.

Someone else needs to try out.

John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart: Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog Think it Through.

Tax cuts have become a sick joke

(Cross-posted from Think it Through.)

Did you hear the joke about the president who wants to reduce the deficit and cut taxes?  Depending on your level of cynicism, you are either amused or annoyed that our lawmakers in Washington simultaneously pay homage to special commissions on the federal budget deficit and debate the size of the tax cuts they will enact.

But you cannot place all the blame on our politicians.

Ever since Ronald Reagan made tax cuts the engine of his drive for smaller government, the American voters have acted like spoiled children holding out their hands for more candy even when Halloween is long past.  The tea party members have built an entire political movement based on such childish selfishness.

Before Ronald Reagan, Americans seemed to understand the income tax was a necessary price to pay for the functions of government that benefit society as a whole and each of us as individuals.  This may be why, prior to Ronald Reagan, no candidate had run for president on a platform of cutting taxes.

It is true that President Kennedy, once in office, decided to try a Keynesian approach to stimulate a sluggish economy by lowering taxes and increasing government spending temporarily, but he did not campaign on tax cuts.

In the last century, Americans managed to build a strong economy and a broad middle class with top tax rates ranging from 70 to 90% of income.  By the time Reagan left office in 1988, he had cut the top tax rate to 28%.

The lost income for the government, mixed with Reagan’s huge military build-up, left the country deeply in debt.  Nonetheless, Reagan’s legacy has been that Americans feel entitled to tax cuts and, ever since, political candidates of both parties have made sure some type of tax cut played prominently in their campaigns.

George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both campaigned on tax cuts – Bush promised a cut in the capital gains tax and Clinton called for reduced taxes for middle- and low-income workers.  Once in office, however, both of these presidents raised rates on upper-income households in order to recover from the deficit-spending Reagan years.  Clinton’s tax and budget policies gave the country eight years of economic prosperity, and he handed his successor a budget surplus.

George W. Bush reverted to the Reagan lesson.  He promised and delivered a massive tax cut with virtually no rationale other than “It’s your money, I want to give it back to you.”  Democrats in Congress were not willing to buck the Reagan legacy, so they essentially went along.

Even Barack Obama, the self-described agent of change, followed suit and ran for president on a platform of a middle class tax cut.  Now he is shadow-boxing with himself about how many of the Bush tax cuts installed in 1981 he wants to let stand.

The Pew Research Center reported this year that a majority of nearly six in ten voters would choose to either repeal all of the tax cuts (31%) or just repeal the tax cuts for the wealthy (27%), while only one in three (30%) wanted to keep all of the tax cuts.

In extensive research on taxes over the years, we have found that when people are informed of things such as the budget deficit, the national debt, and the billions of dollars the government spends every month simply to pay the interest on the national debt, tax cuts are placed on a much lower priority.

Yet, President Obama has not explained the choices between tax cuts and what else can be done with the money.  He, like most other politicians, has accepted as truth that you cannot oppose all tax cuts.

Why not inform people of the payoffs – for jobs, for the economy, for programs they care about – if we repeal all of the Bush tax cuts?  You can make a compelling case that the benefits to repeal are far greater than those of letting the tax cuts continue.

Is there no public official with the skill and courage to help the country break its adolescent dependency on tax cuts?

John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart: Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog Think it Through.

Democrats for Angle

(Cross-posted from Think it Through.)

If you are a Democrat and you want to do something that will help you revive your party and rebuild the self-confidence it had just 18 months ago, you should send your money and support to Sharron Angle for United States Senate in Nevada.

Sure, she has some strange views.  Angle is known more for what she is against than what she is for.  I call her the Elimination Candidate: she would like to eliminate Social Security, the Department of Education, the U.S.’s membership in the United Nations, fluoridization of water, and the Internal Revenue Service code.  But so what?  A wacky freshman U.S. Senator from Nevada is not a great threat to our democracy.  But the person she wants to eliminate from the Senate has proven to be one of the most formidable obstacles to progressive change in this country.

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Mission accomplished, peace with honor, or the courage to come home?

(Cross-posted from Think it Through.)

As a former speechwriter for politicians, I pity President Obama's scribes this week. Their assignment is to craft a speech recognizing the last U.S. “combat” troops leaving Iraq. I can feel their frustration at being asked to draft remarks that defy reality.

Here is an opportunity for the President’s word merchants to turn frustration into a positive result for the country.

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Statistics don’t lie, people do

(Cross-posted from Think it Through.)

The Washington Post created a new government statistic this week, and played it on page one – the average tax rate. The post story actually highlighted this in red ink: “If Obama’s 2011 budget is enacted: average [tax] rate rises to 21.4%.

If you are wondering whether you pay the “average tax rate,” stop wondering – there is no such rate.

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Obama guided by his enemies

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

If you have ever doubted that President Barack Obama has an irrational love affair with bipartisanship, you will become a believer by looking at his position(s) on bringing the 9/11 defendants to justice.

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Polls should find out if bipartisanship is a priority

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

Some of us have always believed that bipartisanship, like partisanship, can be a means to an end.  Sometimes you need one or the other to achieve a goal, such as passing legislation to increase or cut taxes, reform health care, or create jobs.  But the Obama era has elevated bipartisanship to an end in itself.

Pundits continually cite polls and anecdotes that suggest Americans would like to see more cooperation between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.  But we have no accurate reading of how important this really is to people, compared to other priorities.

Let’s find out.

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