The Democratic Party has a job to do.
First, deliver us from the evil of Donald Trump. Next, get America focused on our longer-term national disasters — the undermining of democracy, the grotesque overconcentration of wealth and income, the swollen power of corporations and financial privateers, the rapid heating of the air and seas, to name a few.
That’s the task that, more than many of us might like, we are counting on the Democrats to tackle over the next few years. It’s a mission that some elements of the party have yet to take to heart. I offer in evidence a transcript of last week’s presidential debate and the results of my first foray into computer-assisted textual analysis – a search for appearances of the letters t-a-x.
Sixty-nine. That’s how many times somebody or other mentioned taxes or taxing or taxation. In fairness to the candidates, the culprit was often one of the so-called moderators. Marc Lacey of the New York Times got the ball rolling with his multiple attempts to make Elizabeth Warren acknowledge, with Bernie Sanders, that taxes for middle-income families could go up to cover the cost of the Medicare for All plan that both candidates support. Since Warren declined the invitation, Lacey’s main achievement was to demonstrate that an old-fashioned print scribe could do tax gotcha as mindlessly as any TV newshound.
Sadly, though, a number of would-be Presidents insisted on getting into the game. Joe Biden raised the mythical specter of a $10,000 tax hit to “firefighters and schoolteachers” and went on sermonize (in a post-debate interview) about the need to “be candid and honest with the American people.” Amy Klobuchar lectured her fellow candidates along similar lines, declaring that “we owe it to the American people to tell them where we’re going to send the invoice.”
Pomposity ran rampant. Canned attack lines abounded. Warren’s failure to say just how she would fill a “multi-trillion-dollar hole in this Medicare for All plan” was, according to Pete Buttigieg, emblematic of “why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular.” Once a supporter of Medicare for All, Mayor Pete had just a few months earlier urged his rivals to “stand up for the right policy” and “stop worrying about what the Republicans will say” since “they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists” regardless. In last week’s spin room, a different-sounding Buttigieg complained that Warren had been “more specific and forthcoming about the number of selfies she’s taken than about how this plan is going to be funded.”
Not to be left behind (except in the polls), Beto O’Rourke answered a wealth-tax question with the observation that Warren sometimes came across as “more focused on being punitive and pitting some part of the country against the other instead of lifting people up and making sure that this country comes together around those solutions.”
It was a dubious characterization of Warren and her campaign. Substituting the word party for country, however, it was a pretty apt assessment of the latest turn in the candidacies of O’Rourke, Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttiegeg.
Shabby oneupsmanship aside, the scare talk about taxes was disheartening. Once upon a time, Democrats left that sort of thing to Republicans. After Ronald Reagan rode the California property-tax revolt into the Governor’s mansion and the White House, many Democratic lawmakers were cowed into voting for his top-heavy tax cuts. Then an opportunistic band of “New” and “Third Way” Democrats sold their party on the neoliberal agenda of low marginal tax rates, deregulation, monopoly-coddling, union-scorning and corporate-centric trade pacts. It turned out to be a poor formula for “lifting up” the have-nots and have-lesses, but a great boon to the fortunes of the have-mores and have-mosts.
And so, along with all the Democratic Party’s other challenges, it must now work very hard to rebuild its credibility as a champion of the unwealthy and unconnected.
Of the 2020 candidates, Sanders and Warren have led the way in this crucial project. Both have come up with brave policy ideas. They have been brave on the tax front as well, even if Warren has pointedly refused to create a telltale bit of “I will raise taxes” video for Republicans to use in their attack ads, which, as she well knows, will carefully omit whatever she might add about the impact on health, health care and what people with and without insurance have to pay for it.
When Democrats make Warren out to be a dangerous tax-hiker, they feed into the anti-government cynicism that was and remains the other party”s chief stock in trade. That would be bad form in any election season. It is shameful behavior among those engaged in a collective effort to end the rottenest and most dangerous presidency of at least our lifetimes.
If I had a more sophisticated analytical toolkit, I would not be content to count variations on the T-word. I would develop a metric for references to the public goods that taxes make possible — clean-energy innovation, public transport, schools, white-collar law enforcement and the rest. When candidates up and down the Democratic ticket start bringing up those things more often than they speak of taxes, their party will be in a far better state of readiness for the assignment that awaits.