In the wake of President Obama’s speech yesterday insisting on a new minimum tax rate for millionaires — and vowing to veto any entitlements cuts without revenue increases — Republicans are already accusing President Obama of “class warfare” and claiming he wants “the largest tax hike in history.”
So perhaps it’s worth recalling what happened the last time a Democratic President faced those charges. As Steve Kornacki recalls, Bill Clinton campaigned on raising taxes on the rich, followed through, was tagged for “class warfare” and “the largest tax increase in history,” and, well, the rest is history, though there’s also a cautionary message for Obama that shouldn’t go forgotten:
Clinton promised to raise taxes on the wealthiest two percent of Americans, and voters responded — even as Republicans screamed, “Class warfare!” And as president, Clinton followed through, creating a new marginal rate that affected the top 1.8 percent of income-earners — and that passed Congress without a single Republican vote, but with dire Republican warnings that it would cost millions of jobs and plunge the country into another recession. Instead, it proved to be one of the main reasons that by the end of Clinton’s term the country was running a surplus and was on course to pay off the entire national debt.
To be fair, the Clinton example also shows how funny public opinion can be. Even though his tax-the-rich rhetoric polled well in the ‘92 campaign, most voters — at least in the early years of Clinton’s presidency — bought into the GOP’s suggestion that by enacting “the largest tax increase in American history” Clinton had gone after more than just the wealthiest Americans. Only when the economy had fully recovered did voters finally give Clinton credit for his 1993 budget.
This should serve as a cautionary tale for Obama now: There’s no guarantee that the public will stick with him on his new posture, no matter what polls say now. But all of the available data suggests that Obama has now staked out a position that the clear majority of Americans like — and that also happens to be rooted in a philosophy that Obama himself has long embraced. So it seems like a reasonable chance to take.
As always, when people draw on the Clinton years to discuss Obama’s predicament, they tend to emphasize his triangulation and tacking to the center. This aspect of the story is almost never part of the discussion.
Obviously there are a host of differences between the two situations. But Kornacki’s recounting suggests an approach Obama might adopt as he sells his jobs and deficit plan: Why not appropriate the Clinton legacy? Obama might work a mention of Clinton’s 1993 economic plan and the period of prosperity that followed into his speeches, with a special emphasis on the fact that Republicans derided Clinton’s plan in terms identical to those we’re hearing now — and that not a single Republican voted for it. Wrong then, wrong now. That kind of thing.
We keep hearing that Obama desperately needs to win back blue collar whites in key swing states like Pennsylvania. Word on the street is that Clinton remains pretty popular — and memories of the Clinton economy remain fond — among those folks.
Update: Jamison Foser has much more of the history, including ol’ Newt accusing Clinton of “class warfare” while he pushed to cut Medicare to fund tax cuts for the rich.