The Ghost of Landslides Past

Walter Mondale turns up in the Washington Post‘s Outlook section today with an article entitled “How to Raise Taxes Without Losing Votes.” Yes, that was my first reaction, too: this has to be a parody from the Onion, coming from the architect of the one-state sweep of 1984.
The article has two disingenuous aspects to it that deserve to be noted, however. First, in the second paragraph, he advises liberals to “avoid generalities, and clearly link taxes to addressing concrete national needs.” This is interesting because Mondale did not follow this exact advice in 1984.
Smarter Democrats in 1984 knew they did not have much credibility as the party of spending restraint, having ridiculed Republican concern about the deficit for more than 30 years. Bill Clinton urged Mondale to pledge to put any new revenue from a tax increase into a trust fund to reduce the deficit, or else voters would think Democrats would just spend the money on more social programs, but Clinton’s suggestion fell on deaf ears.
Mondale’s second disingenuous statement is this: “I lost the election, but won the debate. Reagan ended up increasing taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987 to mend the budget and tax systems.”
Hold it right there, as Reagan might have said in one of his western movie roles. Mondale is trying to slip us a fast one. Everyone understood that Mondale’s tax hike promise entailed raising income taxes, especially on “the rich,” just like Obama and the left today. Reagan never gave an inch on this ground, because he understood that not all taxes are created equal: there is a difference between taxes that affect economic incentives and taxes that raise revenue more broadly with less distortion of economic activity. All of Reagan’s tax increases were changes to deductions (like depreciation) and credits and excise tax rates.
If you strapped a liberal to a polygraph machine, I’m betting that if you put the question to them as to whether they’d rather have a tax system designed to maximize revenue and economic growth, or a tax system designed to emphasize taxing the rich and redistributing wealth, liberals would overwhelmingly choose the latter, chiefly because liberalism has largely decayed into a creed of envy and resentment. Obama admitted as much during the 2008 campaign, with his “spread the wealth” comment to Joe the Plumber and his answer to ABC’s Charlie Gibson that he’d be for raising the capital gains tax even if it reduced revenue because it was the “fair” thing to do.
Obama had given some indications of being interested in pro-growth tax reform right after the election, but that appears to have gone by the board with last week’s budget speech. Next year’s election will likely center on a direct clash over the question of taxes and spending. Spending is now a dirty word with a majority of voters, so look for Democrats to employ euphemisms about defending public “investments.” In fact, I’ll offer the flat guess that “investments” will be the most frequent term used in the 2012 Democratic platform, and every single mention will mean public sector spending–not private sector investment.
In this regard the 2012 campaign will once again find Democrats in a position similar to 1984, when the base demanded fealty to affirmative action quotas, and the platform wrestled with language to disguise this unpopular fact. They settled on “verifiable measurements” instead of quotas. It didn’t fool many people, and “investments” won’t fool many people that the Democratic Party wants to go on spending into oblivion.