My colleague The Moose did a post this morning playing off fresh charges by the former deputy director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives that the administration took the whole faith-based project about as seriously as, well, “compassionate conservatism” in general.But nestled in the post was another subject on which The Moose and I share a healthy obsession: the scheduled demise of the federal estate tax, a.k.a, in Republican-speak, the “death tax.”The Moose specifically proposed reinstating a reformed version of the estate tax and dedicating the money to a real faith-based initiative. But aside from that particular idea, I think Democrats, as a matter of basic principle, ought to single out the estate tax repeal as a Bush/GOP outrage that must not be allowed to stand.This happens to be one issue where the standard lefty critique of centrist Democrats has some merit. At some point during the 1990s, the GOPers did some focus groups and discovered that sizeable majorities of voters didn’t like the idea of family farmers and small business owners getting hit with high-rate federal inheritance taxes when they were struggling to keep the farm or business in the family for the next generation. They also discovered that calling the inheritance tax a “death tax” pushed even more buttons. Nothing excites Republicans more than finding an issue where they can simultaneously win votes and richly reward their richest constituencies. So not suprisingly, abolishing the “death tax” became a standard feature of GOP tax proposals in the Age of Newt, bearing poisonous fruit when Bush took office amidst spectacular budget surpluses and got the chance to cut taxes.A goodly number of Democrats–especially those from marginal and/or rural districts–saw those polls and just flat-out caved (for the record, the DLC never did so, and in fact made the “death tax repeal” an object of particular hostility and derision). In fact, other than the so-called “marriage penalty” adjustment, repeal of federal inheritance taxes probably got more Democratic support in Congress than any other feature of the Bush tax package. That was then. This is now. And now Democrats should seriously consider making opposition to a permanent “death tax repeal” a signature issue. Why? Well, for one thing, repealing inheritance taxes strikes at the very heart of a long–and until recently, bipartisan–American tradition of progressive taxation in which the burden of self-government falls on wealth as well as work. (As The Moose often points out, Teddy Roosevelt was the father of the federal estate tax). There are three ways to get very, very rich. One is to earn it with actual work (a rare but not impossible feat). A second is to earn it through investment income. And a third is to inherit it. (A fourth, I suppose, is to marry it, perhaps more than once, but we’re not talking about Sen. John Warner here). A broad-based tax system should not mysteriously exempt the third source of enormous wealth, especially since it is the one that rewards birth-status rather than effort or initiative or good judgment, and that serves virtually no economic purpose. Moreover, truly dangerous and immoral concentrations of wealth often take generations to accumulate, with inheritances serving as the crucial link between economically rational and irrational–indeed, anti-competitive–consolidations of market power. To put it another way, accepting the abolition of inheritance taxes makes any consistent and progressive fiscal philosophy incoherent. We’re gonna tax high earners and small investors, but not big fat trust fund babies? Oh, really? Aside from the principles involved, I am convinced Democrats can turn public opinion around on the estate tax. The extremist abolitionism of the GOP on this issue makes it easy for Democrats to be reasonable, in a way that’s far more difficult in the complicated world of marginal rates on income. For years, most Democrats have supported a reform of the federal estate tax that would raise the threshold for applying it high enough to exempt virtually every legitimate small family farm or small business, and perhaps even lower the rates, which are significantly higher than for corporate or personal incomes. That would essentially return the estate tax to a simple, progressive purpuse: a tax on the inheritence of very large personal fortunes–a “billionaire’s tax,” to demagogue it just a little, in the spirit of “death tax.” Let the GOPers defend that, for a change. Pivoting public opinion on inheritence taxes will require the kind of sustained, loud Democratic attention that is currently being paid to Social Security privatization. But it’s worth it, both morally and politically. Repealing the estate tax is a central pillar of the GOP’s plan to eventually shift the federal tax base entirely from wealth to work, with the goal of not only “starving the beast” of government, but of turning heavily taxed people of modest means into anti-tax zealots while solidifying the Republican Party’s iron pact with the most privileged and powerful economic interests in the country. So: if and when the Beast of Bush’s SocSec proposal is slain or at least firmly caged, I nominate “death to the death tax repeal” as a Big Fight worth having, and winning.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
I ran across a story on faulty focus group memories of Trump, and I wrote about the implications at New York.
As an unpopular president facing a sour electorate, Joe Biden really needs to make 2024 a comparative election rather than a straight referendum on his presidency. Luckily for him, his likely general-election opponent, Donald Trump, is equally unpopular for reasons that are quite vivid. He’s as well known as Biden, and he works very hard to reinforce the traits that might make an undecided voter (even one unhappy with Biden) reluctant to put him back in the White House. So half of Biden’s work in drawing contrasts is done for him, and part of the other half is made easy for him by Trump’s strongest supporters, the “deplorables” (to use the Hillary Clinton term that has become a MAGA badge of honor) who enjoy shocking the world by advertising their hero’s most questionable characteristics.
It is becoming apparent, however, that Trump’s potential coalition is being augmented by low-information voters with a hazy understanding of the Trumpier features of the 45th president’s record, character, and agenda. By that I do not mean the non-college-educated voters who make up so large a part of the Trump base. Many if not most of them are pretty educated about their candidate. But there’s evidence that disengaged and/or deeply alienated folks who may nonetheless vote in a presidential election (if not any others) don’t know as much about Trump as you might assume, as the New York Times’ Patrick Healey has observed:
“Our latest Times Opinion focus group discussion with 13 undecided independent voters included a striking result: 11 of the 13 said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held now, and only two said they would vote for President Biden. The reason: overwhelming concern about the economy.
“But I was less surprised by the big vote for Trump than by this: The group didn’t blame Trump for things he was responsible or accountable for.
“For instance, several people linked their economic troubles to COVID, but they didn’t put any blame on Trump for that. Some were upset with the end of abortion rights nationally, but they didn’t tie that to Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. Several wanted bipartisanship, but they didn’t blame Trump for his hand in sinking the recent bipartisan border deal. One person, a Latina, blamed Trump for worsening racism in the country and recounted a searing incident that happened to her — but she was among the 11 who would vote for him anyway.”
Healey concludes that “a lot of our focus-group participants — and many voters — see Trump as an acceptable option in November, yet they don’t know or remember a lot about him.” This makes them, of course, highly susceptible to Trump campaign messaging asserting that the economy during his presidency was the greatest ever; that he’s a natural peacemaker who inspired respect for the United States everywhere; and that he’s a decent, law-abiding businessman (and family man!) whose near-constant forced court appearances are uniformly the product of his persecution by the other party.
Democrats, of course, will have opportunities (and increasingly, an obligation) to set the record straight about Trump and his presidency. But the difficult thing is that low-information voters also tend to be low-trust voters, which means they don’t tend to believe traditional arbiters of objective reality like the mainstream news media, and may not grant more truthful politicians superior credibility. Further distorting understanding of the Trump administration (and thus its possible return) is the huge trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives everything that immediately preceded the disaster an undeserved glow, while immolating memories of less powerful traumas associated with the former president’s tenure.
In other words, low-information voters who dislike politics so much that they are not inclined to dig into facts and evidence touching on political topics are highly vulnerable to the kind of disinformation that benefits Donald Trump. And if they are in a bad mood in November, they could help turn the election into a negative referendum on Joe Biden even if they are inviting something — and someone — far worse. Democrats will have to work hard to break through with the truth.