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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How to Fight Bush’s Tax Cuts

One of the most important questions for Democrats as we move into the 2004 campaign season is how to fight Bush’s tax cuts.  Bush has already revealed his strategy, as detailed in a Monday article by Mike Allen in The Washington Post.  They will use carefully-doctored statistics to argue that repealing the tax cuts will mean significant tax hikes for the typical middle class family.  All the better if they can get the press to confront Democrats with these carefully-chosen “facts”, as Tim Russert obligingly did to Howard Dean on Sunday’s Meet the Press, but we can be sure these same factoids will show up in campaign commercials, debates, etc.
How can the Democrats effectively counter this strategy?  One way is to expose these facts as careful cooking of the data to defend the indefensible. Another way is to decry the tax cuts in general as massively unfair.  Even if–to use the example brought up by Russert from data supplied to him by the Treasury Department–a typical married couple with two kids and a $40,000 income gets a $1,933 savings from the 2001 and 2003 bills, the top 1 percent of taxpayers save an average of $56,000 and receive 37 percent of total tax cut savings.  
All true.  But probably not so effective, as Michael Tomasky points out in a good post on The American Prospect website.  People want the money they can get, modest as it may be, and just pointing out the wealthy get more may not be enough to turn them against Bush tax cuts, even if you allow the non-wealthy to keep the bulk of their tax savings (though that’s a start).   Instead, Tomasky argues, Democrats should make the case that the tax cuts have effects that are directly counter to the typical voter’s self-interest, since the Feds have no money to help states shore up budget shortfalls.  That results in cutting services and raising taxes in the states and localities where voters actually live.
That’s a promising approach.  Polling evidence has consistently shown that voters only really oppose tax cuts in the context of taking away something else that they want.  Fairness is a concern, but it will never be enough to carry a Democratic politics on this issue.
Probably the Democratic Presidential candidate who done the best job articulating this perspective on taxes is John Edwards.  You can read his recent speech at Georgetown University here and an analysis of that speech by Willliam Saletan of Slate here.  Other Democrats hopefully are paying close attention.