Dem-talk: Down the rich

Posted: Sep 28, 2003 12:00 AM
Gen. Wesley Clark was in public view for the first time. It is remarked that he was all but ignored by the other presidential aspirants, which is true. Viewers waited for his basic autobiographical declaration. Is it true that as recently as in 2001 he praised Presidents Reagan and Bush at a Republican dinner? In Arkansas? Gen. Clark didn't deny this. What he said was that it had been "an incredible journey" for him and "for this country since early 2001." That's right. The United States entered into a recession and was attacked by terrorists who killed 3,000 people in New York City and Washington. "I knew that I needed to speak out. And when I needed to speak out, there was only one party to come to."

That's the way people tend to talk who decide they want to run for president. No one gives much thought to what they say, because (1) there isn't that much time -- there were 10 presidential candidates standing around there; and (2) it's a waste of time. What would Gen. Clark have come up with? What changed him from cheerleading Republican in 2001 to front-line critic of the Republican Party under the leadership of the same man he praised in 2001? What vision is it that he got? Was there a trance, like overnight? Or more prolonged, like St. Augustine's? Not too prolonged, because he had only two years in which to go from cheering the Republicans to deciding that duty required him to head a national movement to replace them. Undecided voters are entitled to wonder what fresh epiphany he might have in the next two years. Where would this one take him?

The candidates' session was devoted in case after case to the matter of taxes. More accurately, to a denunciation of President Bush's tax reductions for the rich. The denunciation of that part of the new tax code that extended benefits to the rich was unanimous, but there were disagreements as the question of outright repeal presented itself. Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman have tried to make this point, namely that to come out simply for repealing the Bush tax bill requires a commitment to undoing the whole of it, and this would be hurtful to a lot of people who are not millionaires -- what about them? Howard Dean's categorical approaches to matters small and large do not welcome time off for discrimination, so he renewed his commitment to undoing the whole tax law and starting again from scratch.

Sen. Lieberman let out a little common sense, as he often does. He said he would repeal the tax cuts "on the highest-income Americans." Why? "They don't need it." That's true. Bill Gates doesn't need an extra million. But there are dangers in parsing the tax code in quite that way. What is the value of the redundant advantage? Does everyone absolutely require free speech protection, even for zany expressions of opinion?

The candidates were exercising extraordinary license in speech to analyze those Bush tax cuts for the rich. If you take the fabled 1 percent and add up the tax relief the very rich got from the Bush law, you come up with $25 billion per year. That is a great deal of money, but of course needs to be viewed in perspective. In the current fiscal year, the nondefense budget deficit will increase by $120 billion, which is nearly five times the cuts for the rich. Those increases in government expenses, which ran more than 20 percent higher than indexation, were not criticized by the Democratic candidates in part, one must suppose, because most of them were voted for by Democratic members of Congress.

And that perspective brings us to muse on how such as Sen. Lieberman parlay that 1 percent tax cut for the rich as causing the national debt, deficits, illegitimacy and malaria. Bush "sent us in a deficit that will cost the middle class, our children and grandchildren, all sorts of money in the future." The burdens and the liberties enjoyed by our grandchildren are more closely related to whether we can stop terrorism and swollen government than to any initiative by Mr. Bush to restore $25 billion to the people who earned it and keep on doing so.

But anti-rich talk is the bacon and eggs of Democratic camaraderie. Every now and then it exposes the witch doctors to a sharp little stab of thought. The lady interrogator, Gloria Borger, having heard all of the candidates declare that they would not want any new tax increases, asked them, How are you going to eliminate the tax cuts of 2001 without enacting tax increases? A nice point, but the candidates quickly, unanimously, swiftly decided to ignore it.