By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
It's been about six weeks since Republican Paul Ryan released his Roadmap for America's Future. Marc Ambinder noticed in the Atlantic this week that very few members of the Republican conference have endorsed Ryan's plan for cutting the deficit. "So the question for Republicans is: yes, Paul Ryan has a plan. But if you don't support it, then what, specifically, would you do to reduce the deficit over the long term?"
Well, Ryan calls for a consumption tax and not too many Republicans are interested in raising taxes, because they fear they'll lose their seats. But they've got it backwards. As incumbents, these days there may be more risk in appearing to do nothing about the deficit than there is in appearing to favor tax increases--especially if there's a way to establish a simpler, fairer tax, as Ryan advocates. It all depends on how much of a moral imperative exists for restoring fiscal sanity, and polls show that imperative is clear to a growing number of voters.
Republicans--Ronald Reagan is the most famous one--have raised taxes before in order to cut deficits and gotten re-elected. It's the ones who pledge not to raise taxes and then break their pledge who get in trouble. Believe me, Bush 41 speechwriters like me know how NOT to communicate on taxes. We learned the hard way. Here's what Bush 41 said in his daughter Doro's biography of him:
"I wish I had never said, 'Read my lips, no new taxes,' because had I not made it so pronounced people would say, 'Well, you know, he has to do this.' President Reagan raised taxes several times, but he just kept saying, 'I'm against a tax increase.' ... For some reason, the right wing of our party that still criticizes me for a tax increase has nothing to say about the Reagan tax increase, which is good. I'm not trying to undermine his legacy. I just wish I'd been that good.
"My failure was not being a good enough communicator at the end of my presidency to convince people that the economy had recovered. I needed a couple of quarts of Ronald Reagan ... I think I was maybe a couple of quarts low on charisma."
The difference between what happened in the 1990 budget deal and what's happening now is that this time, the deficit is in the trillions, and Americans are fed up with politicians who won't do anything to get the spiraling fiscal crisis under control. Plus, Paul Ryan is not low on charisma.
Ryan is doing what Reagan did: saying that spending needs to be cut first, and that if we must have a tax increase, he'll have to be dragged kicking and screaming. He's smart enough to realize that most people outside the beltway think the answer to this fiscal crisis is bigger than just taxes or just spending. It's probably going to have to be both.
Reagan's example proves that the problem for Republicans is not in raising taxes when it's the fiscally responsible thing to do; the challenge lies in how you communicate the need to do so to the American people. Paul Ryan is doing a great job of getting the message out, and more Republicans need to join him.
Republicans need a couple of quarts of Ronald Reagan here.