September 23, 2012

GEORGE ALLEN’S campaign for the U.S. Senate in Virginia this year has relied on the gauzy oratory of uplift for which he was known in his earlier stints as a senator and governor — when he wasn’t threatening to shove Democrats’ “soft teeth down their whiny throats” or dismissing a dark-skinned citizen with a crypto-racist slur (“macaca”). By steering clear of specifics and sticking to anodyne rhetoric about restoring America as “a land of opportunity,” Mr. Allen, a Republican, has largely avoided landing in the sort of hot water that cost him his U.S. Senate seat in 2006.

By contrast, his Democratic opponent, Timothy M. Kaine, long known for his command of policy and, like Mr. Allen, a former governor, has laid out relatively detailed proposals in a campaign occasionally knocked for its wonkishness. So it was that in their debate Thursday, the two candidates were true to form: Mr. Allen skirted most substantive discussion of taxes or the threat of automatic cuts looming in Congress, while Mr. Kaine offered a menu of options, including ending Bush-era tax cuts on families earning more than $500,000 and rolling back tax breaks for big energy companies.

Moderator David Gregory pressed Mr. Kaine on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax. In response, Mr. Kaine said he would “be open to . . . some minimum tax level for everyone.” He went on to point out that many of those who pay no federal income tax nonetheless pay a greater portion of their income in taxes than Mr. Romney does.

Republicans immediately pounced, citing the comment as evidence that Mr. Kaine is an inveterate tax-raiser. Pundits piled on, trumpeting Mr. Kaine’s supposed blunder. In fact, as missteps go, his comment was, if anything, a nano-gaffe.

Unlike former presidential aspirant Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), whose embrace of a minimum federal income tax passed with little response from Republicans, Mr. Kaine has not proposed such a thing, and his exhaustive published positions don’t mention it. As his campaign accurately pointed out, Mr. Kaine, as governor, was instrumental in raising thresholds so that tens of thousands of low-income Virginians were excused from paying state income taxes.

To avoid the draconian automatic spending cuts known as “sequestration,” Mr. Kaine has urged a mix of tax increases and reasonable cost-cutting — for instance by allowing the federal government to push for lower prices on prescription drugs in Medicare. He has stressed his readiness to reach a balanced deal with Republicans. Mr. Allen, by contrast, has kowtowed to anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist by ruling out any and all tax increases. That doctrinaire refusal to compromise is precisely the approach that has led Congress into impasse and stalemate.