Matt is absolutely correct about the sloppy thinking of congressional Democrats about how to deal with the expanding of the Bush tax cuts, which is sort of the centrist equivalent of Doug Henwood’s belief that unions should just let the Republicans take over and dismantle collective bargaining rights and waste resources trying to make single-payer more popular instead:
The mainstream position of the Democratic Party is that over the medium term taxes should be higher than they are now but lower than full expiration of the Bush tax cuts would make them. Achieving this policy objective requires the following steps:
1. Barack Obama is re-elected.
2. Barack Obama vetoes full extension of Bush tax cuts.
3. Bush tax cuts expire.
4. Since now Republicans and Democrats both agree that taxes are too high, the White House proposes the “Obama tax cut” package.
This is not a foolproof plan since obviously Obama might lose the election. But if Obama loses, then Republicans will just do whatever they want on taxes one way or another.
The strange thing about my plan is that even though almost every single Democratic member of Congress agrees that taxes should be higher than they are now but lower than full expiration would make them, this plan is not the consensus Democratic approach. Instead on Friday morning I found myself sitting through a baffling discussion of tax strategy with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and some folks from the new labor-backed group Americans for Tax Fairness, in which this sequencing strategy seemed off the table. Instead the focus was entirely around the idea that liberal messaging would be so effective as to mobilize the public into coercing Republicans to take a pre-expiration vote to partially repeal the Bush tax cuts. Messaging is, obviously, an important part of politics and any strategy needs an element of that. But in this particular case, the merits or demerits of any particular message pale in comparison to the difference in the tactical situation before the Bush tax cuts expire (when one party says taxes are too low and the other says they’re too high) and after expiration (when both parties will agree that taxes are too high).
This kind of thing is precisely why I spend so much time talking about the fact that assertions about the power of the BULLY PULPIT are, to whatever extent they aren’t meaninglessly tautological, false. Excessive focus on the power of rhetoric isn’t just pointless but counterproductive, not only because it overestimates the ease of major changes but leads to an inability to focus on concrete questions of power. I think Whitehouse et al. are probably overestimating the power of messaging to make Democratic tax priorities more popular, but even if they’re right it doesn’t matter. Increased taxes on the wealthy are already popular. It doesn’t matter, because Republican legislators 1)are ideologically opposed to them 2)have far more to fear from primary challenges backed by powerful monied interests than from voters who will change their votes based on votes on fiscal policy (which is in fact a very small number.) What Obama and Democratic legislators need to be focusing on is that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts mean in concrete terms. Maybe Obama made the right choice by getting stimulus in exchange for a temporary extension of the tax cuts. But if he wins re-election, the play is obvious — let the Bush tax cuts expire and get a new deal that produces more revenue than extending them would. You can use the expiring tax cuts as bargaining leverage — although I don’t think you can get anything worth getting this time — but the idea that you’re somehow going to get Republicans to explicitly vote to raise taxes because of the power of messaging is crazy.
Speaking of the Bush tax cuts, I never stop being amazed that people use the passage of the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War as illustrations of the awesome power of the BULLY PULPIT, when getting Republicans and a few conservative Democrats to support upper-class tax cuts, or getting Congress and the public to initially defer to presidential war powers, are both about as challenging as a mediocre high school team would be to the Yankees. Both of these policies certainly reflect presidential power — agenda-setting and war-making powers, respectively — but in terms of the question of whether presidents can compel Congress to do things that majorities don’t want to do by going they’re entirely beside the point. Bush didn’t make upper-class tax cuts popular, and his pre-war propaganda campaign didn’t make the Iraq War any more popular. What made Bush relatively effective in his first term as that he and his team seemed to understand that it doesn’t matter — you have the votes or you don’t, and public opinion has only a very attenuated effect on votes by members of Congress. If the Democrats actually want to increase revenues, they need to act like this Bush, not the one who thought he could ram Social Security privatization right down Congress’s throat by going public.