Fairness is back as a political issue and the Democrats are on the rise. That at least is the wisdom du jour of political Washington, from which I would enter an unfashionable dissent. I do so with some trepidation. When the No. 1 Republican slips as much as President Bush has in his recent bungling of the budget battle, it's plausible to assume that the opposition Democrats will be boosted by the teeter-totter dynamics of partisan politics.
Certainly the Democrats feel ebullient. They have managed to shake off -- or forget -- the repudiation their leadership suffered in the House when most of the rank-and-file Democratic members voted against the the budget agreement forged and endorsed by Speaker Tom Foley and the rest of the party leadership. When I saw House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, the man who presided over the aborted summit negotiations, last week, he seemed to have dismissed that fiasco entirely. "I have never seen greater unity on our side than we have now on a tax package that emphasizes fairness and progressivity," he said.
"Moderate Democrats like Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma and conservative Democrats like Charley Stenholm of Texas are as enthusiastic as the liberals," Gephardt said of the bill Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski put together after the summit's collapse. That bill would raise about $160 billion in additional taxes over the next five years, mainly by boosting the tax rate for the upper brackets from 28 to 33 percent and hitting millionaires with a 10 percent surtax.
A series of polls showed voters saying by a 3-1 margin that if taxes have to be raised, the rich should take the heaviest hit. The Brookings Institution's Thomas E. Mann told The Post that Democrats could "play their 'fairness card' " and win "as many as 15 or 20 House seats," a remarkable gain from the high base they already hold.
Even more dramatically, The Wall Street Journal, the bible of supply-side economics, reported in its lead story on Oct. 12 that "class warfare, it seems, is making a comeback." The Journal quoted Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) as saying, "It has suddenly dawned on people that the fairness issue is very big."
Well, maybe. But we have heard this tune before. Back in 1984, Democrats were convinced the fairness issue would bounce President Reagan right out of the White House. Democratic nominee Walter Mondale proposed raising taxes on the rich to reduce the budget deficit. But somehow, people didn't hear the phrase "on the rich," and thought Mondale was talking about them.
Now, we are told, the public is much more aware of the growing inequality in America, the widening gulf between the rich and everyone else. They are ready to punish the greedy.
I'm not convinced. First of all, it's darn hard to raise big money in revenues without hitting the middle class. The Rostenkowski tax bill, for example, though advertised as a soak-the-rich measure, raises $36 billion over the next five years by postponing indexing of exemptions and tax brackets for one year. That means you lose your protection against inflation, a hit that is felt proportionately harder by a lower- and middle-class taxpayers.
Second, some Democratic operatives outside Washington are convinced that middle-class voters are angry about the taxes they pay themselves, not those other people don't pay. Mike McKeon, a down-to-earth pollster who still lives in his blue-collar hometown of Joliet, Ill., told me: "People are sick and tired of paying taxes and getting nothing in return. They're convinced government isn't working. The schools don't educate, the streets aren't safe and the traffic gets worse all the time. And yet there are still people who want them to pay more taxes!"
McKeon's analysis is driving the Illinois gubernatorial bid of state Atty. Gen. Neil Hartigan (D), who has come from underdog status into a virtual tie with favored Secretary of State Jim Edgar (R) by opposing extension of a temporary 20 percent surtax Edgar wants to continue. If Hartigan is right, then the Washington Democrats are barking up the wrong tree.
The final reason for skepticism that fairness is the magic elixir for Democrats has to do with the hidden issue in American politics: race. No one wants to talk about it publicly, but if you ask any campaign consultant or pollster privately, you can confirm the sad reality that a great many working-class and middle-class white Americans are far less hostile to the rich and their tax breaks than they are to the poor and minorities with their welfare and affirmative-action programs.
Contrary to the Washington wisdom, the real, ill-suppressed anger on the doorsteps where I've interviewed is directed toward people farther down on the economic ladder, especially if they are black, not toward the wealthy.
The "fairness" issue, to many, is still a code word for welfare-coddling. And the antipathy to that has grown, not declined, as the economic squeeze tightens on the middle class.