On the day President Bush decided that the 1988 campaign was over and taxes might have to be raised, Ron Brown, chairman of what's left of the Democratic Party, put on his Clark Clifford-model statesman's suit and said it was "no time for gloating." Come off it, Ron. It's precisely that time.
I say that not just because (in declaring a conflict of interest) I am about to collect on a substantial bet that Bush would raise taxes (gloat, gloat), but because ever since Bush uttered his famous "read my lips" vow, anyone who could read numbers knew the statement was sheer demagoguery. If the Democrats cannot gloat when the president finally owns up to reality, then there is no glee in the misfortunes of Donald Trump either.
But if the Democrats simply go into their oh-so-responsible bipartisan mode, they will pass up not only the opportunity for sweet political revenge but a chance for showing show some leadership as well. From all indications, Bush would like to avoid raising the income tax and get revenues from other sources, presumably user fees of some sort. At the same time, the administration would like the Democratic Congress to join it in an agreement to cut entitlement programs -- and lower the capital gains tax. In the end, what would come out is one neat package in which the White House and Congress would do a Three Musketeers act: All for one and one for all. But, once again, it's the middle class that would be skewered.
In the 1980s, the Democratic Party lost not only the White House but its very soul. It helped enact a revised tax code in which the wealthiest of Americans had their taxes substantially cut and the less rich Americans, particularly the middle class, had their taxes raised. Most people had their income taxes reduced some and their Social Security contributions increased even more. The upshot was a tax increase.
Worse yet, the Democrats played accomplice to what, even in retrospect, was a mind-boggling income tax formula in which the wealthy paid proportionately less in taxes than the upper-middle class. This is the so-called bubble, where the very wealthy pay 28 percent and the less wealthy 33 percent. I am still waiting for someone -- including the vaunted Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) -- to tell me why this is fair. Fair or not, the rich got even richer. The richest fifth of the population went from having 41.6 percent of national income in 1980 to 44 percent by the end of the decade. At the same time, the real wages of average Americans declined.
For the Democrats to now help Bush cobble together some sort of deficit-reduction program -- higher taxes and reduced expenditures -- is like painting over a rotting building. The structure ought to be razed -- starting with that regressive tax code. The Democratic Party of old had a pretty good idea: a progressive income tax in which the rich paid proportionately more than the poor. It's still a good idea and, better than that, equitable.
Moreover, the Democrats might give some thought to what those higher taxes could be used for -- like investing in America. Our antiquated infrastructure, our sorry education system, our overwhelmed health care system, our failure to invest properly in non-defense research -- these are all areas where more money could be spent prudently. A country whose roads and bridges are dilapidated and whose schools turn out functional illiterates is at a competitive disadvantage against nations such as Japan and Germany. These countries can not only get goods to market on time but have workers who actually can read packing instructions. At risk of being called a bleeding heart liberal, I might also say that we are talking quality of life here -- life itself when it comes to health care.
Given that some of the best brains in the Democratic Party suffered from ideological vertigo during the Reagan years, the party might want to turn to a Republican, Kevin Phillips, for an outline of how to proceed. His new book, "The Politics of Rich and Poor," suggests a populist revolution is brewing out there and that people are fed up with those in the Trump set -- their parties, planes, homes, cars and, most of all, their smug assumption that they earned it all. Throw in the savings and loan swindlers, and even mild-mannered people get into a Bastille-storming mood.
So gloat, ye Democrats -- and take as much as a week to do it. But then set to work raising taxes on those who can afford to pay, cut the defense budget because the Cold War is over, protect worthy entitlements like Social Security that have been paying their own way, invest in something other than Sunbelt shopping centers (want one, cheap?) and act, in short, like the Democratic Party of old. If the Democrats try that, they might be gloating for a long time to come.