The Magazine

Through the Roof!

Democrats fall in love with taxes again.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By STEPHEN MOORE
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Why have Democrats suddenly become so overt and emboldened in their tax raising schemes? One explanation is that Democratic leaders have come to believe that taxes are no longer the radioactive issue with voters that they were in the 1980s and '90s. Maryland's O'Malley ridicules his conservative "no new taxes" critics and insists that "taxes are not a pestilence, plague, or disease."

With Republicans' poll numbers in the dumpster, liberals have come to interpret voter disgust with the GOP as a validation of their own old-school tax-and-spend mode of governance. Most of the Democrats' tax actions are disguised as hitting only the wealthiest few, who, as Obama puts it, "can afford to pay more." Democrats may well strike a populist chord with that theme, especially in a time of high economic anxieties, but the strategy is risky.

GOP pollster David Winston has been testing these propositions, and he finds that when "Democrats say tax the rich, most voters think their own taxes will go up." Winston's polling also shows the electorate thinks raising taxes when the economy is heading into a potential recession would be a nightmare. Evidence of the potential for a political backlash over higher taxes comes from Indianapolis, where just last month voters unexpectedly threw out a once-popular Democratic mayor in favor of a low-profile Republican with no money, no charisma, and no name recognition. Why? Voters were furious at a city-wide property tax hike last year.

In a 1988 Saturday Night Live skit called "Dukakis after Dark," Lloyd Bentsen asks Dukakis, "You were going to raise taxes, weren't you?" Dukakis shiftily looks around to make sure no one is listening and whispers: "Through the roof." How times have changed! Now Democrats are exposing their tax giddiness enthusiastically and in the light of day. It may be the ailing GOP's best chance for a comeback next year. Republican congressman Mike Pence of Indiana refers to the Rangel tax hike as "the Democrats' gift that just keeps giving." Then he adds: "The liberals in that party just can't control themselves. They keep proposing one new tax after another."

He's right, and some Democrats are fuming privately that the party continues to adopt the Mondale strategy of pledging to raise taxes, which won Fritz exactly one state (plus the District of Columbia) in 1984. The 2008 presidential election will be much more competitive. But if Republicans eke out a victory, they may have to thank all those Democrats who became "unafraid" to raise taxes.

Stephen Moore is senior economics writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

Correction

This article incorrectly attributed to Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle support for a universal health care plan paid for with a payroll tax surcharge. The plan was backed by the state's Senate Democrats but not by the governor.