A couple of days ago, George W. Bush pointed out — correctly at it happens — that if the Bush tax cuts were not called “the Bush tax cuts”, they wouldn’t be so controversial. Ezra Klein affirms, pointing out that the Democrats have basically conceded at least part of the issue.
Most of his tax cuts are, at this point, an almost foregone conclusion. No one is talking about taking the 10% bracket and raising it back to 15%. No one is talking about raising the 25% bracket back to 28%, or the 28% bracket back to 31%, or the 33% bracket back to 36%. And not only do both parties support the expanded child tax credit, but Democrats have expanded it further. The bulk of the Bush tax cuts are now a bipartisan affair.
To put it differently, Democrats have, for the most part, admitted that Bush was right, and the Clinton-era tax rates were too high on most Americans. For all that Democrats talk about returning to the Clinton-era tax rates, they only ever mean for the top two percent of taxpayers — the folks who are now in the 35% bracket, but whom they would like to see in a 39.6% bracket.
Ezra has a higher opinion of the Democrats than I do. Klein, bless him, is serious about fiscal matters and believes that the Democrats are equally serious. I don’t. If the Democrats were really worried about debt, they would be talking about raising taxes for everyone else. They would certainly be up for ending or tapering the payroll tax holiday. Their support for tax hikes on the rich — whether wise or stupid — is motivated by politics, not budget math. They want to portray the Republicans as the party of the rich. That’s about as far as their thinking goes.
Look, I’ve said taxes are probably going to have to go up. We have an aging population, a mountain of debt and many obligations. But anyone who thinks about revenue seriously knows that you simply can’t close the deficit on the backs of the rich. Returning to Clinton-era taxation levels for only the rich would net a trillion or a little less: not nothing, but not enough. Hell, you could take all their money and you still wouldn’t get there. Even the so-called Buffet Rule would only bring in a few billion a year.
This is not about revenue or debt. Reagan, who raised taxes in combination with reform, was serious about debt. Bush and Clinton, who raised taxes on everyone and cut spending (eventually) were serious about debt. Simpson-Bowles, which contemplates tax increases in combination with reform, is serious about debt. The modern day Democratic proposals are showmanship. They are partisanship. They are, and I hate to resort to cliche, class warfare.
The Democrats are simply showing how unserious they are about our deficit. Let’s not pretend there’s any thought behind it.