We Must — And Will — Raise Taxes
Wednesday - April 06, 2011
As I write, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner are trying to negotiate a temporary budget agreement to extend funding of the federal government. Their success appears problematic. Majority House Republicans demand a $60 billion cut in federal spending; Senate Democrats have agreed to $30 billion. Neither side shows any sign of moving.
So as you read, dear student of politics, our elected leaders may be locking the door on the national government and pocketing the keys. No postal service, no Medicare payments, no Social Security, no air traffic control - in short, nothing that requires a payment or a paycheck from the federal government.
How has this come to pass? Obviously, there’s not enough space in a 600-word column to explain, but allow me a condensed effort.
We have talked of the “third rail of American politics,” i.e., that no politician can ever speak of raising taxes, since at least 1984, when the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, Walter Mondale, said that the Republican incumbent wouldn’t tell you that he’d raise taxes to deal with the growing federal deficits, but that he, Mondale, would. Mondale carried one state and the District of Columbia. Reagan gathered in everything else. Thus nobody, but nobody, has run for any office that I know of on a platform that included tax hikes.
Reagan, of course, did raise taxes: 13 times during his eight years in office. His Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, despite his famous “Read my lips: No new taxes,” raised them as well. So too did Bill Clinton, the only president since Dwight Eisenhower to run a couple of annual budget surpluses.
But nobody runs saying that that’s what they have in mind. (There is, of course, the Democratic Party’s exception to that dictum. Call it the “Obama exception,” if you will. Run against a party that’s driven the economy onto a reef, undertaken two seemingly endless wars and accrued the nation’s first trillion-dollar annual deficit, and you can promise to raise taxes on people making more than a quarter million dollars a year - and still win.)
In 2010, that third rail ran across a continent and half an ocean to Hawaii’s gubernatorial election. Democrat Neil Abercrombie ran for governor, saying that he would not raise taxes; he’d restructure government and send his lieutenant governor to Washington to tap huge pools of available federal funds left untouched by his Republican predecessor. Now, of course, in office, he admits that we must raise taxes.
Is anyone surprised?
We have two other third rails in American politics. Call them, if you will, the fourth and fifth rails of our politics.
Rail No. 4 is Social Security, launched in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal’s huge Democratic majorities in Congress. It was designed to help the most vulnerable in our population, the aged and the disabled, at a time when almost all Americans seemed vulnerable.
Rail No. 5 is Medicare, pushed through a Democratic congress by Lyndon Johnson during the brief, fertile period of the Great Society of the mid-1960s.
Democrats and Republicans criticize Social Security and Medicare at their peril. Both programs aid all Americans over the age of 65, and those Americans are the votingest Americans of us all. Even Tea Party Republicans who denounce “Obamacare” as socialism, communism, or worse, whimper, “He wants to take away our Medicare.”
No he doesn’t. But taxes must be raised, Social Security must be restructured and Medicare must be regulated. If they aren’t, the president and Members of Congress may never find the keys to keep our nation and state running.
Correction: In last week’s column, I wrote that 2 million Japanese visited Hawaii in 2010. A friendly reader emailed to inform me that I was 800,000 off; 1.2 million is the correct number. My apologies.
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