Among the many ways the United States went berserk after the September 11 attacks, the least remarked upon, but most morally revealing, is what happened to Republican thinking about taxes during wartime.
Since that awful morning eleven years ago, the United States has been continually at war. But never before in our history has a political party made it a national priority to cut taxes for wealthy Americans at a time of war.
The obvious pattern has been the opposite — we’ve raised taxes to fund the extraordinary expenses war requires, as well as to make sure more fortunate Americans shoulder some of the burden as young soldiers, drawn mostly from middle and low income families, do the actual fighting.
But something snapped in the Republican mind after 9/11. We’ve now put a trillion dollars of war on our kids’ credit card, with Republicans leading the charge for tax cuts for the top the entire time.
In a saner era, the big 2001 Bush tax cuts enacted a few months before September 11 would have been immediately revisited, because we were now a nation at war.
In a saner era, it would have been unthinkable for a president to push for further tax cuts for the top in 2003, because by then we were a nation waging two wars. Instead, just two months after we invaded Iraq, Republicans, in a party line vote, enacted fresh tax cuts mostly benefiting high earners.
In a saner era, Republicans would never have held the debt limit hostage last year in order to get a deal that kept taxes low for the wealthiest Americans when we were still at war.
And in a saner era, a Republican presidential candidate worth $250 million who paid taxes at the rate of 13.9 percent on $20 million in income would never make further tax cuts for the top the centerpiece of his agenda when we still have nearly 80,000 troops in Afghanistan.
He’d see it as unseemly.
I’ve talked to friends who are military officers about this pattern and they find it grotesque. They live by a code of honor and an ethos of shared sacrifice that makes such choices seem obscene.
What were Republicans thinking? What is Mitt Romney thinking now? Only they know for sure, but what’s clear is that Republican leaders see no moral disconnect between the sacrifices borne by the tiny fraction of Americans who serve in the military (and their families), and repeated tax windfalls showered on a relative handful of well-to-do families at the same time.
Seen in this context, Romney’s failure to mention Afghanistan in his convention speech is even more troubling than we thought. It’s the supreme symbol of Republican compartmentalization. Instead of “Believe In America, ” the de facto GOP motto has become: “Let other people’s children fight our wars, funded by debt other people’s children can pay off later.”
Can anyone really defend this position? This isn’t what Republicans have stood for in the past. It’s the ultimate proof the GOP has gone off the rails.
The amazing thing is that Democrats almost never make the tax argument this way.
When I’ve done so on cable TV over the years, Republican guests react as if I’m from another planet. It’s so outside the well-worn grooves of the debate that they’re speechless for a moment. And then uncomfortable.
“Wait a minute,” I can hear them thinking, “he’s supposed to cry ‘fairness,’ and then I shout back ‘class warfare.’ What’s with this ‘nation at war’ business?”
Yet if the debate were framed around these realities, I think most Americans would react as my military friends do. They’d say it’s wrong. That we’ve lost our senses. That this isn’t how Americans behave. (Note to David Axelrod: This is a testable proposition).
That’s why President Obama should make this case forcefully during the debates. “We’ve been at war for over a decade, Mitt,” the president can say. “We’ve still got 80,000 troops in Afghanistan. Why have you and your party repeatedly made tax cuts for people like us your top priority at a time of war? We’ve never done that before in our history. Most Americans find it shameful.”
No answer that amounts to an evasion — “Well, even during a war, we need to grow the economy and give job creators incentives to expand” — will pass swing voters’ smell test.
Yet what other answer is there? Hammering this point could create the kind of eureka moment on which elections turn.
Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a contributor to MSNBC. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.