If John Kerry ends up losing this election, it may not be so much because of what he did as what he didn't do. By overemphasizing his Vietnam record, he chose to ignore issues on which George W. Bush potentially is vulnerable. Among these is tax reform.
Tax reform has been one of the best issues Republicans have had over the last 20 years or so. No wonder. Every poll that has ever been done has shown deep dissatisfaction with the tax system, quite apart from the burden of taxation. In other words, the way we raise revenue bothers people almost as much as the amount it takes out of their pockets.
Historically, tax reform was primarily a liberal Democratic issue. Under the leadership of tax experts like Stanley Surrey and Joseph Pechman, Democrats in Congress rammed the tax reform acts of 1969 and 1976 down the throats of two Republican presidents. The main goal of these bills was to soak the rich by taking away their tax loopholes.
In the early 1980s, Republicans and conservatives joined the tax reform fight, using loophole-closing for tax rate reductions. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 brought the top tax rate down to just 28 percent -- its lowest level since the 1920s. This constituted a marriage of Republican and Democratic views of tax reform.
Unfortunately, there was a divorce shortly thereafter. George H.W. Bush abandoned Ronald Reagan's vision by endorsing higher tax rates in 1990 and was joined by the leading Democratic tax reformer, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Like Lucy and the football, we were promised lower rates in return for losing loopholes. But shortly thereafter, the football was pulled away and rates were raised without restoring the loopholes. The 1993 tax increase under Bill Clinton completed the double-cross.
Most Republicans still wanted tax reform, but unfortunately split into two competing camps -- those supporting a flat-rate tax and those favoring a national retail sales tax. The result was a dissipation of support for any reform. After 1994, when Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in two generations, their interest in tax reform evaporated. They liked being able to add special provisions to the tax code to benefit their friends, and did so with abandon. Republicans channeled what was left of their tax reform agenda into scapegoating the Internal Revenue Service, blaming it for all the sins of the tax law.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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