Taxes reveal who we are as a people and what we value. Polls consistently show that majorities of Americans are willing to pay taxes and even have them increased when the revenues are devoted to their priorities, such as education, health care and deficit reduction. The public’s support is greatest for raising taxes on the affluent, but it extends to hikes tied to popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Moreover, Americans are not fans of tax cuts when pitted against other priorities. Republicans know this: During the battle over President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, the talking points for then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill leaked out. Revealingly, they warned him to “make clear that there are no trade-offs” because “the public prefers spending on things like health care and education over cutting taxes.” If you watch carefully, you will see some Republicans today practicing the same dance steps, weaving and ducking in the face of unavoidable and cruel trade-offs.
I told the truth in 1984. “The American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan’s bills,” I said in my acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. “The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. . . . It must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
I lost the election, but I won the debate. Reagan ended up increasing taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987 to mend the budget and tax systems.
Elections since 1984 have demonstrated that favoring higher taxes to pay for specific priorities can be a winning political formula. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both prevailed with well-executed and honest proposals to raise taxes for concrete purposes that Americans favored.
It makes sense to seize today’s bipartisan support for cutting tax exemptions as a way to increase revenue. I also believe that we must eliminate Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. Where is the decency in cutting taxes for those making tens of millions while middle America struggles? This is a fight over fairness that Americans can understand.
Republicans are not risk-free in the tax debate. GOP politicians promise to reduce the deficit, but the indisputable record of Bush shows that his first priority was cutting taxes for the super-rich, even when that brought higher deficits. This record has bred distrust among the conservative base, including tea party sympathizers. One of Reagan’s domestic policy advisers, Bruce Bartlett, wrote a book in 2006 titled “Impostor,” decrying Bush’s phoniness on deficits and spending. Talking about shrinking deficits while cutting taxes for the the wealthiest does not attract conservative populists or swing voters.