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
Aside from having major implications for individual rights and perhaps for the Democratic Party, the current abortion fight may also affect the future of individual politicians, one of whom I wrote about at New York:
Vice-presidents of the United States are captive to their boss’s interests and the assignments they are willing to delegate. This has been particularly true of the current vice-president, Kamala Harris. She’s in the shadow of a generally unpopular president who has at best a shaky grip on his own party (most Democrats hope those negative characterizations of Joe Biden will soon be out of date, but they remain accurate right now). And as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti recently explained, Harris has been unlucky with the thankless jobs Biden has given her:
“Her popularity started sinking when she first visited Central America and appeared dismissive of a suggestion that she visit the border. Behind the scenes, she was worried the assignment to take on the migrant crisis was a clear political loser … Her other top priority — voting rights — was no less publicly frustrating when the administration’s preferred legislation predictably failed in the split Senate. Some close to her wonder why she didn’t muscle her way into leading more popular projects: implementation of the COVID-relief-bill spending or, later, the infrastructure package.”
But now Harris’s luck may have finally turned: She is emerging as the Biden administration’s chief champion of abortion rights at a time when they are uniquely in danger and when Democrats everywhere are seizing on the issue as a potential game changer in 2022 and beyond. It’s an issue that fits her far better than it does the president, an old-school Irish Catholic politician who until mid-2019 opposed federal funding for abortions and could not bring himself even to say the word abortion. Harris is an entirely credible and consistent advocate for reproductive rights, as the Los Angeles Times noted:
“Taking command in the battle over abortion’s future, now largely being fought in the states and as an issue in the November election, comports neatly with Harris’ political résumé, touching on her experience as the first woman elected to the second-highest post in the nation and as a former California attorney general and U.S. senator with a longstanding interest in maternal health.”
It’s also worth noting that the women most immediately and harshly affected by the anti-abortion legislation racing toward enactment in red states are people of color, Black and Asian American women like Harris. And although many other federal and state Democrats will command a portion of the bright spotlight on this topic, Harris uniquely can call on the unparalleled megaphone of the White House, which reaches all states with highly diverse abortion landscapes. Per the Times:
“’We need a leader on this. No one knows who’s the head of Planned Parenthood,’ said Montana state Sen. Diane Sands, an abortion rights activist since the 1960s and one of many Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have met with Harris in recent weeks.”
Most of all, the abortion-rights battle offers Harris something her 2020 presidential campaign lacked: a passionate constituency with national reach, as the Washington Post observes: “She faces considerable pressure to show that her political skills have improved since that effort, which collapsed before a single primary vote was cast.” Yes, she has the famously combative “KHive” Twitter army ready to throw down on her behalf at a moment’s notice, but she could use a showing of excitement in the non-virtual world of left-of-center grassroots activists too. No issue is more starkly partisan than abortion post-Dobbs; within the Democratic Party, there is no real downside to pro-choice militancy.
What would really benefit Harris politically, of course, would be evidence that the abortion issue can stop or significantly mitigate the red wave so many Democrats fearfully glimpse on the horizon of the November elections. If abortion rights turn out to be not simply an energizer for the Democratic Party’s progressive base but a wedge issue that can bring back the suburban gains and heavy youth turnout of the 2018 midterms, it could help give Harris’s prospects a significant boost.
This development for Harris couldn’t arrive at a better time. Biden’s rapidly approaching 80th birthday is very likely to revive pressure on him to retire at the end of his first term. At this point, even though Harris is the heir apparent as vice-president, it’s unclear whether she has enough political juice to head off powerful rivals for the 2024 nomination. Nothing would make her more powerful as a presidential contender than to have not just Biden’s blessing but a reputation for fighting on an issue of crucial importance to progressive politics and the people it aims to represent.