washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Month: April 2012

The Conservative “Christianization” of Thomas Jefferson: A new book claims America’s great champion of religious freedom and tolerance was actually just a conventionally devout and pious Christian. Sadly, millions of Americans will believe it’s true.

A message from Ed Kilgore:
Dear Readers:
A key part of the religious right’s agenda in recent years has been to rewrite American history to make the founding fathers of America appear to be advocates of an explicitly “Christian nation” rather than a land of religious freedom, tolerance and the protection of the rights of religious minorities.
The latest addition to this campaign is a new book by a leading “Christian nation” advocate that argues that Thomas Jefferson, the great champion of religious freedom and tolerance in America, was really nothing more than an entirely conventional conservative Christian .
TDS is pleased to offer a detailed TDS White Paper by Andrew Levison refuting this view – a critique that contrasts Jefferson’s actual religious philosophy with the distorted picture presented in this latest attempt to rewrite American history.
The Conservative “Christianization” of Thomas Jefferson: A new book claims America’s great champion of religious freedom and tolerance was actually just a conventionally devout and pious Christian. Sadly, millions of Americans will believe it’s true.
To read the White Paper, Click Here
Ed Kilgore
Managing Editor
The Democratic Strategist

An Alternative to Whining About Dem Failures

By now you’ve probably heard one version or another of the whine of the disappointed Democrat, which goes something like “Obama hasn’t done everything I wanted, so I’m gonna teach him a lesson – I ‘m not gonna vote.” But there is an alternative for progressive grown-ups who feel some disappointment, but don’t think turning everything over to Republicans is such a great idea. It’s about working to create a more progressive congress that can move the “center” leftward, as Chris Bowers, Campaign Director for Daily Kos, explains in an e-blast to progressive Dems:

…Two Blue Dog Democrats–aka, corporate Democrats–were defeated for re-election in Democratic primaries last week….This is huge: if Democrats who frequently side with Republicans and Wall Street keep losing primaries, then all Democrats in Congress will be motivated to more effectively stand up against Republicans and Wall Street.
On June 5 in New Mexico, we have a chance to hand the Blue Dogs another loss.
In the Democratic primary for Congress in New Mexico’s first congressional district, two of the three major candidates are outspoken progressive Eric Griego and conservative, anti-labor Marty Chavez. Making sure that Griego wins and Chavez loses will keep the anti-Blue Dog momentum going, and be an important step toward building a better Democratic Party.
Please, contribute $5 to Eric Griego, and help build a better Democratic Party.
Griego is in a strong position. Because of national grassroots support, he is ahead of Chavez in fundraising. Back in March, Griego won the local Democratic Party’s preprimary nominating convention, leading analysts to start calling him the frontrunner. Griego is running an extremely well-organized voter turnout campaign, and will hit the airwaves with ads this week.
This is a moment where a small donation will make a big difference. Not only will it go to a smart campaign that uses money effectively, and not only will it go to a candidate who has been endorsed by both co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but it will play a strategic role in a larger movement that has a real shot to build a better Democratic Party.
Please, contribute $5 to Eric Griego.
Keep fighting,
Chris Bowers
Campaign Director, Daily Kos

Beats the hell out of grumbling, staying at home and letting Republicans take over all three branches of government.

Ryan’s Denial of Ayn Rand Won’t Stick

Ed Kilgore has an insightful and entertaining post up at Political Animal, taking Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to task for his less than credible dismissal of Ayn Rand as his philosophical guru. Riffing on a Ryan interview with National Review’s Robert Costa, Kilgore explains:

So we learn this week from an interview with National Review’s Robert Costa that Paul Ryan laughs off his identification as a big fan of Ayn Rand as an “urban legend,” based on little more than his youthful enjoyment of (and later, philosophical “bantering” about) her “dusty novels.” No, he sternly asserts, he rejects Rand’s “atheist philosophy;” give him St. Thomas Aquinas any old day!
Costa does not report that Ryan specifically denies the actual foundation for the “urban legend” associating him conspicuously with Rand: his remark in 2005, when he was hardly a callow teenager, that Rand inspired his entire career in public service, or his habit of giving copies of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s militant magnum opus, to his congressional interns in 2003.

All of this wouldn’t matter much, except for the fact that Rand is the philosophical godmother of modern GOP obstructionism, the rigid refusal to compromise on legislation to benefit working people or inconvenience the wealthy in any way. Kilgore elaborates:

…The thing about Ayn Rand, as anyone who has actually read her works can attest, is that she offered readers an all-or-nothing proposition. She didn’t entertain, she instructed. This was most evident in Atlas Shrugged, whose centerpiece was an endless didactic “radio broadcast” by her hero John Galt, identifying all human misery with the “mysticism of the mind” (supernatural religion) and the “mysticism of the muscle” (socialism, or more accurately, the rejection of strict laissez-faire capitalism), and with the ethics of altruism both reflected.

As Kilgore quotes from Whitaker Chambers’ review of Atlas Shrugged, “I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal…”
As for Ryan’s reputation as a top GOP thinker, Kilgore concludes,

It’s possible, I suppose, that Paul Ryan is a secret “Objectivist” who keeps gold dollar sign pins in his underwear drawer. More likely, though, he doesn’t understand Ayn Rand any better than he seems to understand Catholic social teachings. In either event, his reputation as a deep thinker whose brilliance and good will demand respect from everyone across the political spectrum strikes me as entirely undeserved.

It’s not hard to understand why Ryan, like a deer caught in the headlights, would deny Rand’s formative influence on him, since she was not only a heartless reactionary, but also a militantly pro-choice atheist, who accepted Social Security and Medicare (According to “100 voices: an oral history of Ayn Rand“), while sneering at social programs for everyone else. But Ryan’s denials won’t be taken very seriously by anyone familiar with his record.

Florida Battleground a Huge Challenge for Dems

This weekend the Obama campaign begins training hundreds of volunteers at 24 sites throughout Florida. The training will carefully thread the new Florida voter registration law, which is designed, more than anything else, to make it harder for pro-Democratic constituencies to vote.
Under normal circumstances Florida should be a ‘leaning blue’ state. President Obama carried it by 2+ percent in 2008, and demographic changes during the last 4 years could swell the margin a little more. But the Republican campaign to make voting harder presents a tougher challenge for Dems, as Marc Caputo reports in the Miami Herald:

…The Republican-led Legislature passed the registration crackdown law in 2011…Under the new law, which is being challenged by liberal-leaning groups in court, voter-registration groups must register for the first time with the state. They have to meticulously track voter-registration forms and turn the completed paperwork into a Supervisor of Elections office within 48 hours. The previous deadline was 10 days.
Fines range from $50 for each late application to a maximum of $1,000 per organization per year. Two school teachers have faced fines for breaking the new law, which was recently mocked on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”.
The law also scaled back early voting by eliminating it the Sunday before Election Day when African American and Hispanic voters cast almost 30 percent of their ballots, said Camila Gallardo, spokeswoman for National Council of La Raza, a Latino-advocacy group challenging the new law.

Democrats have experienced a 4 percent decline in “active voters” since 2008, while Republicans have increased by abiout 1 percent. But Dems do have some leverage in Florida, which makes the battle worth fighting, as Caputo explains:

Democrats still lead Republicans overall by a margin of 448,000 active registered voters. And, the Florida Democratic Party notes, they lead by an even greater amount — 540,000 — by including the pool of so-called inactive voters, who cast ballots so infrequently that the state doesn’t post information about them.
The Florida Democratic Party points out the inactive voters can become active. It says that about 100,000 of them showed up in 2008, when Obama won the state — and the White House in the process — by about 236,000 votes.
There are about 11.2 million active voters (plus 1.1 million more inactive voters). About 41 percent are Democrats, 36 percent Republicans, 20 percent have no party affiliation and fewer than 4 percent belong to a smattering of other parties.
…White voters appear to be dropping from the Democratic rolls, with 206,000 of them leaving since the last election. Black voters continue to leave the Republican Party, where African American active voters declined 7 percent to about 59,000…Since 2008, the Democratic Party’s Hispanic voter rolls have increased more than 10 percent to about 565,000. The Republican Party’s Hispanic increase has been more modest, about 2 percent, to about 453,000.
…From the beginning of the 2006 Democratic wave until the 2008 elections, Florida Democrats increased their rolls by a whopping 502,000 active voters, thanks to the organizing efforts of the Obama campaign and, especially, the group ACORN, which has since disbanded amid scandal and Republican attacks. As Democrats tallied up the gains, Republicans insisted that they’d still get their voters to the polls to best Obama. They didn’t. And they didn’t do much to register new voters, either.

Caputo notes that recent Florida polling indicates that President Obama and Gov. Romney are in statistical tie territory (47-45 edge for Romney). Florida Republicans will undoubtedly be exploiting every opportunity to suppress votes of pro-Democratic constituencies, since they know their candidate is not likely to inspire much of an increase in Republican turnout. In a close election, the quality of the voter registration and turnout training that Team Obama begins this weekend in Florida may indeed prove pivotal to America’s future.

Romney’s Twisted ‘Fairness’ Meme Not Likely to Fool Many Voters

One of the most frequently-deployed strategies from the Karl Rove/Frank Luntz playbooks is to ferociously attack the adversary at their strength. It appears that this is what Romney is now trying to do, as indicated by the New Hampshire launch of his campaign for the general election. As Benjy Sarlin reports at Talking Points Memo:

Romney outlined an agenda aimed at combating what he called “unfairness” in government, spinning a phrase often employed by Democrats as they make the case that wealthier Americans and corporations should pay higher taxes. Earlier Tuesday, Obama said the rich should “pay their fair share” in a speech to college students in North Carolina. While other Republicans often debate these arguments by emphasizing “opportunity,” Romney adopted the “fairness” language to criticize federal spending.

Here’s how he twists the term “unfairness” in support of right-wing policies:

“…We will stop the unfairness of urban children being denied access to the good schools of their choice; we will stop the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses; we will stop the unfairness of requiring union workers to contribute to politicians not of their choosing; we will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve; and we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.”

Translation: :”We will twist and distort the concept of fairness to justify bashing government workers, crushing labor unions and privatizing public schools.”
Amazing, however, that Romney dared to even mention “the unfairness of politicians giving taxpayer money to their friends’ businesses,” which pretty much defines the core value of the GOP.
It’s the old co-opt the opponent’s most potent terminology, muddy the waters and foment confusion among low-information voters about what it means. Hard to see how it would impress many swing voters who have even a rudimentary b.s. detector.

Political Strategy Notes

A tough new ad by Priorities USA Action and the League of Conservation Voters, “Mitt Romney — in the tank for Big Oil” should be emailed to all voters concerned about rising gas prices.

Linda Feldman at The Monitor has an update on the Senate gamesmanship surrounding the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, crediting Democratic leaders with securing 61 co-sponsors — a comfy super-majority — in favor of the bill (including 8 Republicans). Remaining Republicans are fretting over whether they should support the bill or not, alienating either women or their conservative base, which opposes the bill’s provisions helping gays and lesbians, native American women and women immigrants who need visas. The bill faces a tough sell for Dems in the GOP-controlled House, and, without re-authorization, it will expire inn September.

Sabato has a data-driven discussion about electoral college strategy at this political moment, focusing on MI, PA and WI as key potential swing states.

At the Washington Post, Dan Eggen’s revealing report notes that “Most independent ads for 2012 election are from groups that don’t disclose donors…Politically active nonprofit groups that do not reveal their funding sources have spent $28.5 million on advertising related to the November presidential matchup, or about 90 percent of the total through Sunday,…Most of the ad spending has come in swing states from conservative groups that criticize President Obama’s policies, the data show. Secretive groups have spent tens of millions more targeting congressional races, again mainly in support of Republicans.”

According to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, “54 percent of likely voters said they’d vote for Gov. Jerry Brown’s ballot measure to temporarily hike the sales tax and income tax on wealthy Californians to help fund education, while Nearly 80 percent oppose $5 billion in ‘trigger’ cuts to state schools, reports Jill Tucker in the San Francisco Chronicle.

As Democrats struggle to get more help for students facing burdensome tuition and personal debt, you can get up to speed on the political considerations by reading “10 Ways Student Debt Is Blocking the Economic Mobility of Young Americans” by Jack Temple, Heather C. McGhee and Tamara Draut.

It’s good that President Obama is putting some energy into turning out youth votes, because there is a problem looming, reflected in a new poll by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. As Clare Malone reports at the American Prospect, President Obama still has an edge with young voters, but “…61 percent of college-age Millennials (the futuristic-sounding name given to the generation born in the late 1980s and early 1990s) are registered to vote, but only 46 percent say that they will likely do so in November. By way of comparison, in 2008, 58.5 percent of the same age group was registered to vote, and 48 percent of them actually did.”

Romney does have one very firm, unalterable principle, notes E. J. Dionne, Jr in his WaPo column, “Romney’s principled, radical view for America.” It is that low taxes for the rich are a kind of panacea for all social problems. As Dionne aptly puts it, “…Magical capitalism is the centerpiece of Romney’s campaign, and it may prove to be his undoing.”

Rachel Weiner’s post at The Fixx, “How ALEC became a political liability,” could have been re-titled “How the Trayvon Martin Tragedy Crippled ALEC.” Weiner gives earlier protests by activists due credit, but adds “The civil rights group Color of Change began pressuring the group’s corporate partners late last year over ALEC’s support of voter ID laws. Pepsi Co. dropped out in January. But the boycott really gained steam after the Martin case; a dozen groups have now pulled out.”

CNN’s ‘Political Ticker’ reports on the latest additions to the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” list of House seats Dems hope to take in November. They include: Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-01); Pete Aguilar (CA-31); Raul Ruiz (CA-36); Joe Miklosi (CO-06); Patrick Murphy (FL-18); David Crooks (IN-08); Gary McDowell (MI-01); John Delaney (MD-06); Shelley Adler (NJ-03); Julian Schreibman (NY-19); Manan Trivedi (PA-06); Pat Kreitlow (WI-07); Arizona’s 9th District; New York’s 18th District. These districts bring the overall list to 35 potential flips.

How Far Can Romney Pivot on Immigration?

This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.
Of all the issues on which Mitt Romney will be tempted to execute an “Etch-a-Sketch” moment as he heads into the general election, immigration is the most pressing. Remember, on immigration Romney didn’t just rely on his super PAC to slur his opponents; he identified himself robustly with the nativist strain in the GOP. This worked out fine in the primaries: It helped him snuff the existential threat of Rick Perry’s candidacy, and provided additional fodder for his team’s crucial attack on Newt Gingrich after the South Carolina primary. The general election, though, is a different proposition. With the Hispanic community an increasingly large part of the electorate, Romney will need to campaign for at least some part of the Hispanic vote, and his rhetoric in the past few months doesn’t leave him with many options to do so.
Romney himself recently acknowledged his need for Hispanic voters to an elite GOP donor audience in Florida:

Predicting that immigration would become a much larger issue in the fall campaign, Romney told his audience, “We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party,” warning that recent polling showing Hispanics breaking in huge percentages for President Obama “spells doom for us.”

But as eager as Romney is to pivot, the vocal positions he took earlier in this campaign will make it very hard for him to do so. There are two lines it will be difficult for Romney to cross without inviting fresh charges of flip-flopping: his opposition to “amnesty,” which largely rules out any comprehensive immigration reform proposal that includes large-scale legalization; and his loud embrace of “self-deportation” of undocumented workers. This latter position, which seemed relatively mild in the context of GOP primaries where many voters favored forced deportation, now identifies Romney with the various state efforts inspired by Arizona’s SB 1070, which are designed to make life very difficult for illegal immigrants–and which tend to make life difficult for Hispanics generally. (Indeed, Romney has repeatedly endorsed SB 1070, calling it a national model, even as it receives a new burst of publicity as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments against it this week.)
Romney has nonetheless begun moderating his hard-line positions, with somewhat muddled results. His staff is now suggesting that Mitt’s endorsement of SB 1070 was partial, mainly based on the law’s features forcing employers to verify the documentation of workers. And there are reports that he’s no longer treating Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of the drafters of the Arizona law, as his principal advisor on immigration issues. Romney has also expressed interest in the idea of a “Republican version” of the DREAM Act, though he’s been hesitant to endorse Marco Rubio’s proposal to give undocumented people temporary legal status if they go to college or enter the military, presumably because that might discourage “self-deportation.”
Introducing these kinds of nuances into Romney’s immigration positions may not elicit a backlash, but it’s questionable whether it’s enough to win over skeptical Hispanics. Yet any explicit flip-flop by Romney on immigration will reinforce his image as a calculating prevaricator. That will not only hamper his ability to establish credibility among Hispanics, it will damage his appeal to swing voters. He also has to be sure to protect his right flank, particularly since the white independent voters he desperately needs tend to harbor some nativist sentiments. (Its unclear if such latent xenophobia will be affected by news that the flow of undocumented workers entering the country has largely ended and net migration from Mexico has officially reached zero.)
Of course, many pundits think Mitt just needs to put someone with a Spanish surname on the ticket to attract Hispanic voters. But the two most likely candidates, Marco Rubio and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, both have plenty of other flaws (the first-term governor Martinez raises the specter of Sarah Palin; a recent PPP poll shows Rubio not helping Romney even among Florida Hispanics as a running-mate.) In any case, both Rubio and Martinez have repeatedly said they are not interested in joining the ticket.
Romney has previously said that Hispanics care more about the economy than about immigration policy. With his stance on immigration, he better hope that’s true–and that he can get a large enough minority of that vote to win battleground states. And if all else fails, I suppose, he always has the nuclear option: arguing that the polygamous colony his great-grandfather founded south of the border makes him a “Mexican-American.” That’s sure to go over well.

Obama Has Early Edge in Ground Game

Matea Gold and Melanie Mason of the L.A. Times Washington Bureau have an article in todays’ edition comparing the ground game preparations of the Obama and Romney campaigns. Although it’s still pretty early it appears that Obama is developing a significant edge. In terms of economic resources and manpower, the authors report:

…An examination of how the two campaigns have spent their money in the last year starkly illustrates the huge advantage Obama will have in mounting a ground operation to identify voters and get them to the polls in November.
Spared a primary opponent, the president’s reelection campaign by the end of February had pumped nearly $79 million into laying the groundwork for the general election, deploying staff to far-flung corners of the country such as Laramie, Wyo., and Lebanon, N.H., as part of an ambitious, tech-savvy field effort.
Romney, mired for months in a contentious primary, has not yet devoted substantial resources to a national field program. Of the $68 million spent so far by his campaign, $25.4 million went to fundraising and media ads in primary states, elements that — while key to his front-runner standing — may not translate into lasting gains…He has spent only $5 million on staff, compared with the $20 million Obama has doled out for his campaign workers.

With Romney’s emphasis on hiring top media-savvy conservatives to head up his team, the authors see the battle taking shape ahead as a conflict between “the power of an aerial bombardment through television ads against an in-person voter mobilization months in the making.” Call it the Republican air war vs. the Democratic ground game.
It’s a strategy the Obama campaign is embracing wholeheartedly, as Mason and Gold note:

The campaign appears poised to be even more aggressive this year. Volunteers are registering new voters in an effort to expand the pool of supporters. They are knocking on doors to identify likely voters — an activity that usually occurs in the summer or fall. And the reelection effort has begun blanketing battleground states with field offices, including 18 in Florida, 13 in Pennsylvania and eight in Iowa. In the process, Obama’s apparatus has locked up local Democratic operatives across the country much earlier than expected…That traditional field work is being buttressed by a massive technological investment aimed at expanding the campaign’s voter database, which in turn fuels the organizing efforts.

The RNC does plan to increase its field staff by half, but an energetic Team Obama ground game is already in place — with more to come.

‘Blue Dog’ Losses: Good Party Discipline or Shrinking Big Tent?

Two ‘Blue Dog” House incumbents, Reps. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) and Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), lost their seats to challengers in Democratic primaries on Tuesday, whittling the centrist Dems coalition down to 23 House seats, a new low in their numerical influence.
Both candidates were defeated by progressive Democrats. Matt Cartwright defeated Holden in Pennsylvania’s redrawn 17th district, with strong support from progressive groups, including MoveOn and the League for Conservation Voters, as well as the anti-incumbent Super PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Cartwright, who also spent a lot of his own money, attacked Holden for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
With strong support from organized labor, Mark Critz beat Altmire, who also opposed the ACA, in PA-12. As Amanda Terkel reports at HuffPo, “Eddie Vale, spokesman for the AFL-CIO’s super PAC Workers’ Voice, said Altmire was a “huge favorite” based on the geography of the new district, but “boots on the ground and the energy of working families upset that paradigm.”
While centrists lament the loss of two ‘Blue Dogs,’ many Democratic progressives are undoubtedly heartened by the defeats, which they see as a kind of party discipline invoked by the grass roots in the vacuum created by the reluctance of Democratic congressional leaders to do so. Blue Dogs rarely paid a price in terms of committee assignments or other perks when they failed to support the legislative agenda of Democratic leadership. Now they will have no doubt that progressive groups have the power to hold them accountable at the primary level.
Centrist Dems fear that the campaign to reduce the Blue Dog coalition may drive moderate voters to the GOP and ultimately increase the GOP House majority. But many political scientists now believe that the percentage of genuine swing voters is very small, and most self-described moderates lean toward one party or the other with predictable regularity.
Altmire and Holden opposed the ACA. But centrist Dems point out that another ‘Blue Dog,’ former Rep. Bart Stupak, was instrumental in securing a favorable House vote for the legislation. His seat is now held by wingnut Republican Dan Benishek.
Progressive Democrats have strengthened their hand with the two Blue Dog defeats. But the debate over whether reducing the number of political centrists is a healthy thing for the party or not will continue.
In either case, more discipline invoked by Democratic leaders in congress against straying members would likely strengthen party unity. The ‘Big Tent’ can be a good thing in terms of holding a majority. But the Democratic Party has to take a clear stand — as unified as possible — for defining reforms like affordable health care.

TDS Co-Editor William Galston: A Tax Reform Proposal That Could Win Over Everybody

This item by TDS Co-Editor William Galston is cross-posted from The New Republic.
If I were forced to choose after the election between extending the Bush tax cuts in total and letting them all lapse, I would join Tim Noah in opting for the latter. But I’m reluctant to assume that’s the best we can do. Indeed, as frustrating as the gridlock in Washington is, we should use it as an opportunity to strip down the tax debate to its basics, and reflect on where we want to go. Then we can determine the path that gets us closest to our goal.
In my judgment, the tax code we should aim for should have four key features. It should promote growth, or at least not obstruct growth by diverting resources from productive uses. It should be fair: It should treat taxpayers at similar income levels similarly, and it should tax individuals and families in accordance with their ability to pay. It should minimize complexity, to reduce both compliance costs and opportunities for manipulation. And it should raise enough revenue to pay for the government the American people want. Tax experts tell us that these features are in tension with one another, which means that policy makers must try to strike a reasonable balance among them.
Simply allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on December 31 would fall afoul of at least three of these principles, and probably all four. It would pour a lot of new wine into the same old bottle–a tax code not notable for simplicity, fairness, or its propensity to promote growth. And while phasing in a tax increase would raise significant revenues, a large all-at-once hit to a still-fragile economy could end up reducing a growth rate that was already far from robust, cutting revenues down the road.
Instead, we need to focus on broadening the base of our tax system, in two ways. First, we need to reduce tax expenditures–the many deductions that currently riddle the tax code, most of which violate all four of my principles. I agree with those who argue that proceeding line by line isn’t likely to succeed, as each deduction has backers who would jealously guard it. Instead, we should adopt what might be termed a Comprehensive Flat Tax Deduction. Taxpayers would simply add up all their current deductions, multiply them by a rate that would be the same for all taxpayers (but lower than the top marginal rate), and deduct the result from their taxable income. This simple change would reduce the extent to which deductions now narrow the base of our revenue system. (CBO estimates that setting the rate at 15 percent would raise $1.2 trillion over the next decade; a 28 percent rate would raise less than half that amount.) It would also reduce the massively regressive impact of current tax expenditures, by making deductions less valuable for those at the top and more valuable for those at or near the bottom.
The second strategy for broadening the base of our code should be to look beyond income. No other advanced democracy focuses on income–individual or corporate–to the extent that we do. We should follow other countries’ lead in taxing consumption as well. My preference would be a carbon tax, which would both raise money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But a Value Added Tax on goods would also be acceptable. We could consider doing some of each. Introducing such alternatives could allow us to further lower marginal rates on income, consistent with our overall revenue requirements. There’s something in this strategy for everyone, including environmentalists, businesses that export, and conservative supply-siders.
But all of this will remain abstract and formulaic until we can agree on the size of the government we want our revenue system to finance. Along with most Democrats, I reject the proposition that historical averages offer a sound guide to the future. Demographic changes over the next three decades mean that even with significant reforms to the major entitlement programs, the federal government will consume a somewhat larger share of GDP than it did during most of the post-war period. It is difficult to believe that we’ll be able to make do with a revenue system that raises less than 20 to 21 percent of GDP on a sustained basis.
Most Republicans would choose a substantially lower number, and there’s no hope of resolving this dispute until the public weighs in. That’s why both sides should be willing to wage the 2012 election on the most fundamental domestic questions we confront: How much government do we want, and how will we pay for it? Paul Ryan’s budget, which Mitt Romney has endorsed, clarifies the consequences of holding revenues to post-war averages over the next generation. Discretionary spending would be slashed to levels not seen in generations, while rising health care costs would be shifted to Medicare beneficiaries and state governments. President Obama should hammer these choices home–relentlessly, day by day, speech by speech, between now and the election. If he prevails, he will have created a political predicate on which to build his second term.
That doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to agree on comprehensive tax reform during the post-election lame duck session in which the fate of the Bush tax cuts–and perhaps a larger tax deal–will be determined. The President may be forced to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire without any alternative in sight. But Democrats shouldn’t mistake that eventuality for some sort of grand political victory. We would be better off hoping that the threat of a tax hike that no one really wants will finally force Republicans to agree to a fairer, simpler, pro-growth code, one that yields the revenue that the country needs.