On Wednesday, Jan. 16, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., will speak at the National Press Club in Washington. The title of his talk is, "America's New Challenge: National Security, Economic Recovery and Progress for All Americans." But the true topic of the speech will be why taxes should be raised by rescinding tax cuts scheduled for future years.
Republicans should welcome Kennedy's initiative. Let's have an honest debate about whether the American people are paying too little in taxes, whether they are willing to pay more just so we can have big budget surpluses, and whether they are willing to finance Democrats' big spending plans for prescription drugs, agriculture subsidies and whatever else they think will buy them votes.
I have no doubt whatsoever how the American people will respond if asked to choose. They will say "no" resoundingly to higher taxes and bigger government. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., knows this, too. That is why he is trying to have it both ways -- criticizing the decline in the budget surplus, blaming both that and the recession itself on last year's $1.35 trillion tax cut, but not openly or honestly calling for the tax cut to be repealed.
A key reason for Daschle's wariness about coming clean on the issue, of course, is the fact that 12 of his fellow Senate Democrats voted for the tax cut. If he comes right out and calls for the tax cut to be undone, he makes them all look like fools. As Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., and one of the 12, noted in a letter published in The Washington Post on Aug. 27, attacking the tax cut only makes those who voted for it look "dumb and wrong."
This will not help the re-election chances of Democratic Sens. Max Cleland, Ga., Tim Johnson, S.D., Mary Landrieu, La., Jean Carnahan, Mo., and Max Baucus, Mt., who are up this year, Miller added. All voted for the tax cut, and all are expected to have tight races, with control of the Senate riding on Republicans gaining just one net seat.
In Daschle's defense, he is only doing what Democrats have been doing for years. They always want to have it both ways on the budget -- attacking Republican presidents for budget deficits and then attacking them again for every single spending cut they ever propose. In the Democrat worldview, deficits are never caused by excessive spending, except maybe on defense. They arise solely and exclusively because taxes are too low. Hence, the universal Democrat solution for all budgetary problems, whether they be deficits or disappearing surpluses, is always the same: higher taxes.
No doubt, Kennedy will deny that he favors any sort of tax increase in his speech. He will merely suggest that we hold the line on taxes -- neither raising them nor lowering them. Prudence, he will say, especially in light of the added governmental demands resulting from Sept. 11, simply demands that tax cuts be put aside temporarily until the fiscal picture brightens.
Since Kennedy has been playing this game a lot longer than Daschle, I expect his speech to resonant better than the latter's effort on Jan. 4, which fell flat. Even Democrats were unenthused by Daschle's effort to have it both ways -- blaming the tax cut for every ill of society, but refusing to advocate the logical response and call for its repeal. Instead, he called on President Bush to take the initiative, as if Daschle is just a private citizen with no ability to advance legislation on his own.
Among the Democrats who noticed the contradiction in Daschle's approach was former New York Mayor Ed Koch. In a letter in The New York Times on Monday, he had this to say: "The tax cuts could not have been adopted by Congress without Democratic support. Tom Daschle ... denounced the cuts as responsible for the recession and huge future deficits, but refused to call for their repeal, seeking to finesse the issue. ... If Democrats oppose the cuts, they should have the courage to propose repeal or reduction. If Democrats simply denounce the cuts, and Republicans respond with 'Democratic obstructionism,' the former will fail, and the latter will prevail."
I think Koch is wrong. I think Democrats can have it both ways. They have been doing so for years. The trick for Republicans is to smoke them out and expose their true agenda, which is to raise taxes in order to pay for a vast expansion of government spending. When faced with the stark choice of higher taxes or lower taxes, I think most Americans with side with the latter.
Therefore I welcome Kennedy's initiative. I hope he acts on it and brings up an amendment to reverse last year's tax cut at the earliest opportunity.