Remember this line? "My opponent now says he'll raise taxes as a last resort. . . . When a politician talks like that, you know that's one resort he'll be checking into." George H.W. Bush used that one in 1988, and he was talking about Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Fresh from Walter Mondale's landslide 49-state defeat in 1984 after promising to raise taxes as president, Dukakis said that he'd only raise them as a last resort. No one believed him: He had run for governor of Massachusetts on a "lead-pipe" guarantee that he wouldn't raise taxes, then enacted massive tax increases on state taxpayers. "I will do for America what I've done for Massachusetts," he said, and everyone knew what that meant. Shortly after, Dukakis lost in a 40-state blowout.
While that line was good for a chuckle, it shows you how far left the Democratic Party has moved in the last two decades. These days for Democrats, there's no attempt at "last resort" reassurances. For President Obama, raising taxes is a first resort, one he'll be "checking into" for an extended stay.
Obama is following the lead of Mondale, who recently wrote that raising taxes can be a winning formula for Democrats: "We will not be able to control our budget deficits without raising taxes. That simple reality has brought us to a moment of truth in American politics. President Obama's speech [this month on the budget] lived up to that moment, and now Democrats and Republicans in Congress must take a similar stand." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the deficit and national debt.]
Here's just one of many "moments of truth" the president provided us, after he said that the wealthy can afford to pay more taxes: "I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me. They want to give back to their country, a country that's done so much for them. It's just Washington hasn't asked them to."
The problem with that argument is that, contrary to popular Democratic opinion, the wealthiest among us are already paying more than their share, and Washington has already asked them to "give back" plenty. According to an analysis by the Tax Foundation cited by Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner, the infamous top 1 percent—those who make over $380,000 annually—paid just under 40 percent of all federal individual income taxes in 2008. "Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent of income earners—the group that, according to the liberal world view, is subsidizing tax handouts to the wealthy—shouldered just 2.7 percent of the federal income tax burden," Klein writes. Combined, the top 10 percent pay 70 percent of federal income taxes, and the bottom 50 percent pay less than 3 percent. Really? Yet the president also believes that "the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century," and so they should pay even more.
No wonder a Gallup poll earlier this year found a large majority of Americans—76 percent—would favor overhauling the federal tax code. People see that our tax system is fundamentally unfair, unnecessarily complex, and, in the long run, dangerously unsustainable. Those feelings of unfairness and worry about the future contribute in part to the 69 percent of Americans who think our country is on the wrong track. [See editorial cartoons about the economy.]
Yet Democrats seem mystified at why Republicans are ruling tax hikes out. It's not because we're worried about a Mondale-esque 49-state blowout in 2012. And it's not because we prefer cutting the small slice of domestic discretionary spending—that we enjoy kicking seniors out of nursing homes or causing autistic kids to lose their health insurance, as the president and his staff like to argue. Sure, we're worried that tax increases may hurt the economy, as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is, but even that's not the biggest reason. [Vote now: Should Ryan's budget plan become law?]
It goes to the heart of what separates our two parties, a profound philosophical difference between us. It can be summarized in four short words: "$14 trillion in debt." We want to stop feeding the beast. That's all. We just want to stop the growth of a massive government whose size and scope are out of control. Taking even more money out of the economy through higher taxes in order to keep the tab running higher and higher is simply not an option. People who want to slow down the growth of government—who oppose keeping government going through higher taxes—are not mean, or crazy, or racist.