Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dukakis and Mondale: In Praise of Competence, Honesty, and Responsibility

Over at Big Tent, Tom encourages us to read this latest offering from Jonah Goldberg. Now some will quibble with Goldberg on some of his points, such as when he avers that the war on terror and Bush's "heroic Supreme Court picks" will be the President's greatest legacy. Really? "Heroic"? Have we devalued heroism to the point where picking a couple of conservative white guys -- after, of course, picking a spectacularly unqualified conservative white woman -- for the Supreme Court is heroic? I'll give Goldberg a pass for placing the Iraq debacle -- for what else can even its supporters call it now -- in the framework of the "war on terror," a dubious proposition at the outset. At least he is not comparing liberals to Hitler, fascists, or totalitarians, and indeed in his way is praising Michael Dukakis, kind of, sort of.

But here is another issue for which the hapless Democrats of 1980s presidential candidacies deserve some credit, though Goldberg would lose his job (and probably his intellectual mooring) for acknowledging as much: Admitting that there are times when tax hikes are necessary. Some of you may remember, or at least have read about, the 1984 campaign in which Walter Mondale acknowledged outright that as president he would have to raise taxes. Mondale maintained that President Reagan knew this to be true, and that the President, if re-elected would raise taxes, but that he, Mondale, was at least honest about it. For this bit of truth telling Mondale was pilloried, and while it was not the sole cause (there are never sole causes in election wins and losses, never mind in wipeouts like that Mondale endured) it was a huge factor in his defeat in the fall. Americans did not want to hear it. But guess what? It was true -- Reagan did raise taxes. It was also the right and honest thing to say: raising taxes was both necessary and responsible.

I may have presented this issue here before, but there are four fundamental approaches to taxation. While intended as tainting by labeling by conservatives, my argument takes at face value that one of these four approaches finds expression in the Republican j'accuse "tax and spend liberals." one of the four fundamental approaches to taxation is, to be honest, to raise tax revenues and in so doing to use those revenues to pay for government's expenditures. Far from being an accusation, isn't this what we expect from ourselves? Isn't this what those of you who are parents teach your children? In order to buy something, you need the money for it. Of what I argue are the four approaches, "tax and spend," despite it's status as an epithet, is both the most reasonable and the most responsible approach. As we have seen in American history, we are going to spend. We might quibble about how, and on what, and in what proportion, but we are going to spend.

The second of the four approaches, the one that conservatives present as their alternative, would be "don't tax and don't spend." This modus operendi (which to some, alas, is a modus vivendi) is responsible in theory. The corollary to the lesson we tell our children is that you cannot buy things if you do not have money. Perfectly respectable. But in the American political context? Unworkable. Because as I just argued, we do spend. And in fact the two presidential paragons of reduced taxation in the last quarter century spent like freshmen with a new credit card. Furthermore, in many contexts, not spending is simply irresponsible. Liberals argue as much about cutting social welfare programs. Many liberals and conservatives argue the same about military and foreign policy. In most cases they are right on both counts. So while as a theory "don't tax, don't spend" might have a certain resopnance, it is at best pie in the sky, and at worst irresponsible. Grover Norquist might see himself as a standard-bearer for straight-talking realism. In fact he is nothing more than a mouthpiece for unworkable theory. He is like most postmodernists, but his ideas are even more absurdly impractical and useless.

Then there are the other two approaches, which presumably we can dispense with quickly, because they are both irresponsible and unworkable: "tax and don't spend," and "don't tax but spend." Either option would be silly, both politically suicidal and fiscally reckless. Neither has a serious champion philosophically. The problem is that the latter, by far the most reckless and irresponsible, the most morally vacuous and dangerous, is the precise option carried out in reality by this administration and attempted by those who supported -- pick your name -- "Reaganomics," "Voodoo economics," "supply side economics," or whetever it is that President Bush believes. But at some point there must be a reckoning. The Clinton administration spent much of its tenure cleaning up the mess of the Reagan years (helped out by the first Bush administration, which foundered on the shoals of its "read my lips: no new taxes!" pledge, a political death that must to this day inspire Mondale to paroxysms of giggles) only to have Bush the Younger decide that cutting taxes and massively increasing spending was the path to take.

So by all means, let us praise competence, something that even conservatives are beginning to admit en masse is missing from this administration. But let us also celebrate honesty and responsibility -- two other attributes not exactly flowering in the executive branch these days. There is no sense in romanticizing Mondale and Dukakis, but it is at least worth pointing out that rather than being caricatures, they were men who came close to the top ranks of American political life, and they had their merits, competence, honesty, and responsibility among them. Who would have thought that the Democratic Party nominees of 1984 and 1988 would look so good in comparison to what we have today?

No comments: