June 23, 2003
JOHN EDWARDS, POPULIST....A few months ago I was vaguely
leaning toward John Edwards as my favorite in the Democratic race.
Although I didn't (and still don't) have a detailed understanding of his
positions, his policy choices seemed basically OK, he was personable
enough to stand up to Bush, he had a good national security record, he
knew how to raise money, and he was a Southerner. It seemed like a
reasonable combination of electability and decent liberal credentials.
But then he seemed to disappear. Howard Dean became a media darling,
Dick Gephardt unveiled a (semi) universal healthcare plan, and John
Kerry started going on the attack. Edwards was nowhere to be seen.
So I'm happy to see him give a rousing speech like this last week:
Bush's] economic vision has one goal: to get rid of taxes on unearned
income and shift the tax burden onto people who work. This crowd wants a
world where the only people who have to pay taxes are the ones who do
....This is a question of values, not taxes. We should cut taxes, but
we shouldn’t cut and run from our values when we do. John Kennedy and
Ronald Reagan argued for tax cuts as an incentive for people to work
harder: Americans work hard, and the government shouldn’t punish them
when they do.
This crowd is making a radically different argument. They don’t
believe work matters most. They don’t believe in helping working people
build wealth. They genuinely believe that the wealth of the wealthy
matters most. They are determined to cut taxes on that wealth, year
after year, and heap more and more of the burden on people who work.
How do we know this? Because they don’t even try to hide it. The Bush
budget proposed tax-free tax shelters for millionaires that are bigger
than most Americans’ paychecks for an entire year. And just last week,
Bush’s tax guru, Grover Norquist, said their goal is to abolish the
capital gains tax, abolish the dividend tax, and let the wealthiest
shelter as much as they want tax-free.
good crowd pleasing populism, and it pretty closely matches my own
views. Today's movement conservatives, having already abandoned the
middle class, are now explicitly endorsing the idea of eliminating taxes
on unearned income and reducing the top marginal rates on earned income
to the point where all too many of the super-rich and their trust fund
offspring pay a lower tax rate than your average auto factory worker.
After two decades of this, I believe pretty strongly that middle class
taxes need to be cut while taxes at the top need to be increased pretty
substantially. Edwards' speech presents a plan that does just that.
So good for him. I hope he can present a vision of national security
that's equally coherent, equally tough, and as equally informed by
liberal values. If he does, he could be a pretty tough candidate to
Posted by Kevin Drum at June 23, 2003 08:34 PM
Bring back the 90% top rate of tax, I say.
For what it's worth, Kevin, your assesment echos my thinking pretty
much as well. Edwards' speech is by far the most interesting economic
policy (if not policy, period) put forward so far, because it's 1) true
2) new and 3) said in a way that I think will work.
This is the first forward motion he's had in...what? Forever it
seems. I can't think of a single good thing to happen to him all
campaign except the Q1 numbers. Maybe this will buy him a second look
by the media.
Oh yeah, if he were smart, he'd start coping Blair's rhetoric and
style (Blair is really very popular in the US) and argue for a hawkish
liberal internationalism as a way of climbing over his biggest
challenge; experience and judgement. If he starts now and just hammers
away he can invert the debate like Bush did on education, at least
neutralizing the issue (IMHO).
But he did just make the race more interesting, didn't he?
Hey, Bush gets another term in office, and we'll have a depression, again. Could very well bring back those top rates.
You'd think that the wealthy would be able to realize things like that, but nope.
You'd think, but didn't someone once say that a capitalist was
someone who would sell you the rope to hang him with? Karl someone, I
can't quite remember...
Although I agree with much of Edwards is saying, I think a better
general election-type message to emphasize on taxes is what Tom Friedman
said in a recent column, alluded to by Brian S. in a comment thread a
few posts back. Namely, that a few more years of Bush tax cuts will
inevitably lead to a choice between economy-crippling deficits or major
service cuts. Since nobody wants the former, and only movement
conservatives want the latter, you'd better go with the Democrats if you
want government services like Social Security, Head Start, etc. to stay
at a level where most people like them.
Bill Clinton essentially made this point in an appearance on C-SPAN
in the last month or so (he was speaking before a class on his
presidency at the U. of Arkansas-Little Rock). He explained that the
never publicy articulated reasoning behind the phrase "compassionate
conservative" was simply code for "you can have the 'compassion', i.e.
economic prosperity and government services, that you got in the '90s,
but in a 'conservative' way, with lower taxes and smaller government."
Of course, this is simply not possible, but it was the only message that
Bush could have won with, so he wrapped it in a code phrase because
saying it explicitly would have been too easy to expose.
Forget 90%. Let's make it 100%.
Who do those rich people think they are?
Do they think that they can allocate their resources into more productive areas than politicians can?
Do they think their investments create more goods and services and jobs per dollar than federal bureaucracies?
Do they think the charities that they contribute to are more efficient and effective than government programs?
Do they think that just because they earned their money they should be allowed to keep it?
"Bring back the 90% top rate of tax, I say."
Hell yeah. Punishing success is always a viable option. The upper
1% pays what, about 37% of the income taxes, and many of these tax
payers are really family owned small businesses? Yeah, the notion of
progressive taxation is wonderful, what enlightened person could
possibly be against it? But then again, "progress" assumes a path
toward an ultimate destination. What is that destination?
I'm really resisting the desire to be snarky here.....but I understand the point, so I'll suppress my temptation.
Feh. My sister just told me she paid zero taxes last year. That's
zero. Not "no additional payment on April 15", but "got a check back for
all the withholding". A Zero percent bracket.
And she's paid zero the year before. AND she's applying for a refund of some taxes they paid in the year 2000.
Jeebus freakin' Keeerist. I love my sister, but WTF!
Someone wake me up when Edwards advocates taxation on large punitive damages awards. A man who gores his own ox is sincere
Friedman is wrong: "service cut" doesn't resonate with most
Americans, who are often schizophrenic about government services. Say
"cutbacks in programs" and many will smile at the shrinkage of
But say what those cutbacks mean--Social Security in peril, failing
schools, crummy roads, sick kids, unprotected ports, etc. and things
become more graphic.
If Edwards had Dean's fire, he'd be alright. I really wanted to like
Edwards--on paper he is great. But every time I see him on TV, I just
want to throw a shoe at the screen: he just sounds so wimpy.
Sure, one's going to have to explain what "service cut" means; it's not enough to just say it.
Actually, IIRC, Friedman had a column a couple of years ago in the
same vein, where he dealt with the "it's your money" slogan (can't
remember for sure, but I think it was around the time of Bush's initial
big tax cut plan) and provided some very plausible examples of what that
craigie wrote: "You'd think, but didn't someone once say that a
capitalist was someone who would sell you the rope to hang him with"
The marginal cost on that bit of income is murder, but hey, they're cutting the estate tax, so it's all good.
What I have to congratulate Edwards with is that he understands the
"language game" of politics much better than Howard Dean or John Kerry.
Not once does Edwards say we have to "repeal the tax cut" as Howard Dean
does. He knows that people hear "repeal the tax cut" and think "that
guy's going to raise taxes!"
Edwards is packaging his platform for the audience very well and
knows that the Bush tax scheme has to be repealed but phrases it in such
a way that the listeners hear more about "working hard" and having a
"fair tax burden" for those who get "unearned income."
Say what you want about Edwards' mediocre campaign (I'm a Howard Dean
supporter), I hereby declare his speechwriters to be superior to Dr.
Dean's and Sen. Kerry's.
squiddy wrote: "Feh. My sister just told me she paid zero taxes last
year. That's zero. Not "no additional payment on April 15", but "got a
check back for all the withholding". A Zero percent bracket."
Would you trade places with her, if you could? Is she getting *that* good of a deal?
It's like the guy who wrote in to the Wall Street Journal. He
admitted being one of the people the journal calls non-tax-paying "Lucky
Duckies", and offered to switch places with one of the editors for a
year. Somehow, I doubt they're going to take him up on it. I'm sure the
WSJ eds would agree that high income & 'high' taxes beats low income
and no taxes, any day of the year.
I'm sure we'll hear less "repeal the tax cut" rhetoric in the general
election. Only the party faithful like to take the medicine of
(slightly) higher taxes.
Anyone can hire a good speechwriter and read a fine speech, as Edwards did. But there are two real questions:
(1) What does Edwards stand for? Those who have followed him since he
entered the Senate say that he has yet to define himself and what he
stands for, and his vague generalities during the debates confirm that.
(2) Do we really want to turn the country over to someone who has a
total of only four years of government experience, and who has never run
anything larger than his own Senate office?
But he does have a great head of hair.
"The upper 1% pays what, about 37% of the income taxes..."
Of what possible relevance is this?
What portion of their income goes to all forms of taxes--including
income, social security, medicare, excise taxes, duties on imported
goods, etc.? In comparison to the portion of those in, say, the middle
quintile? Why the fixation on just income taxes? And the percentage of
a certain kind of taxes that they pay, instead of the percentage of
their income that goes to taxes?
Please, please, and I say this as a southerner, please God not another southern (or in the Bush's case "southern") president.
Really, the weasels want to define the parameters of the tax debate
to only include income taxes. Don't let them get away with it.
Besides, if I make a million dollars a year, you can take 40%, I'll
still be happy. Even more so if I'm making billions.
Edwards has always been and will always be the Democrat's greatest
chance at a victory in 2004, but we're all a little too angry right now
to accept the thought of a centrist. This is why Edwards is moving to
the left, to capture the base. During the campaign season, should he get
the nomination (a proposition I find less and less likely by the day),
he would do well to move back to the center.
I think right now the most likely candidate is John Kerry. Dean
proved two nights ago that he doesn't operate well under pressure (And
wow, Russert, could you be more cold-hearted? The man's son just went to
jail.) and the Presidency is all about pressure.
All of the Democratic candidates should coopt this effective rhetoric
because it has such great political promise. Operate as a team to
build a unified message. Don't be afraid to give each other credit.
Was that speech really moving left? I don't think it was. Plain
language and sharp rhetoric are not only the properties of Dr. Dean.
Squiddy: My sister just told me she paid zero taxes last year
[...] And she's paid zero the year before. AND she's applying for a
refund of some taxes they paid in the year 2000.
Jon H: Would you trade places with her, if you could? Is she
getting *that* good of a deal? (mentions Wall Street Journal "Lucky
She's not a "Lucky Ducky". She and her husband are worth a few million US$. She's benefitting from our regressive taxation.
Regardless of whether or not Edwards can win the nomination, this was
a great speech for the Democratic party, period. If a Dem is going to
win in 2004 they need to make it clear the ends that the tax-cut means
is leading us towards, because Joe and Jane America aren't going to like
it. The Repubs will be able to hold off on spending cuts for another
few years at their current pace, but these chickens will definitely come
home to roost before the 2008 election. One key to 2004 is letting
people know what's in store for the future: you can't just cut taxes
forever without eventually losing services (I agree with GK that you
need to replace 'services' with something more tangible, like
'education'). We all know that; the key is making the guy that says "I'm
gonna get a tax cut. Woohoo!" understand that he's basically just
charging the tax cut to his own personal credit card.
We don't *have* to repeal Bush's tax cut; they're slef-repealing. In
order to fudge the budgetary numbers, many of them have sunset clauses.
So just let them expire. The Dems have the advantage in several areas:
No action needs to be taken. It isn't an active step, like voting
for a tax cut. The candidate just shrugs and says "I honored the sunset
provision built into the original law."
One can point to the economy and the deficit and point out that a)
the tax cut isn't having the predicted benefit at all and b) extending
it makes the deficit *much, much worse*.
Point out that the sunset provisions were the only way the
credit-card conservatives could sell the government bankruptcy program
in the first place
Most importantly, *Bush signed them into law.* If letting a sunset
clause take effect is a tax hike, Bush is the one who approved it. (And
his only defense is to admit he never really intended for it to expire,
so he admits to flimflam numbers and loses cred with what remains of
the fiscally responsible Republicans.)
I'm not optimistic about the strategies expressed here.
First, I believe the Republican strategy of tax shifting is designed
to bring the middle class into the "Hate government, hate taxes"
Second, the sunset provisions are booby-traps for future Democratic
and moderate Republican politicians -- honoring the sunsets will be
demagogued as tax increases.
Our opponents are ruthless radicals, and there is a great reservoir
of folks in America today who admire simple-minded ruthlessness,
especially of the Ayn Rand and/or religiously inspired variety.
They're hatred of my government and taxes must be matched and
surpassed by hatred and ruthlessness against them -- times infinity.
They want perpetual war abroad and perpetual destruction and
starvation of government domestically. Let's give them both -- here and
I think punitive damage awards are already taxable. Edwards certainly paid taxes on all of his attorneys' fees.
Interesting that some people think this speech was a move to the
left, other think a move to the right. What I think Edwards is doing is
laying out a vision for an AMERICAN Left, a way to be pro-populist and
be in favor of government help for the middle class and poor that
supports hard work and American values instead of European-style
socialism. He is espousing, I think, a Leftist Capitalism.
Taking back Capitalism. Edwards is very close to being my man!
And I agree with an above post. Combine this ecconomic vision with
Blair's foriegn policy and I think we will have both a winning appeal to
the American center AND strong turn to the left.
The thing that Edwards has done, (and yes, it echoes the attempt of
Friedman's article on this), is to clarify what are the philosophies
behind tax schemes. Edwards is making an earnest attempt to get the
message across that the political philosophy behind the tax cut is
fundamentally different than that of the Bush rhetoric.
I hope Edwards stays on message with this. In agreement with Mike D, this is a great message for Dems in general.
Also, this brings to mind a past post by Larry Lessig- that Edwards is
the candidate that can really inspire. All that may sound odd after the
past while with Dean seeming to take that post. But I have no doubt
that Dean will lose to Bush. Edwards is a closer call.
The problem with populism is that them-and-us rhetoric doesn't lead
to good governance, it's merely a way to gain power. And it seems
unlikely to succeed in gaining power now that people are too smart, well
educated and sophisticated to fall for empty populist posing. They can
see the hangover coming after the beer blast. People no longer believe
in magic, no longer believe that you can just vote yourself wealth and
comfort by taking it from those who have more.
We understand better that this is like a farmer that eats his seed
stock rather than saving it to plant next season. The idea of unearned
comfort and plenty is compelling and we respond to such promises, but we
also have the nagging critic in our minds that counsels us not to fall
for pipe dreams.
Democrats will continue to lose elections until we reform ourselves
and become the party of good governance rather than the party of
jealousy and resentment. Our culture isn't one of fixed stations, a
society stratified by permanent class distinctions. We think we can
improve ourselves, or that our children can do so, and so lack the
vindictiveness of less mobile societies. There is a minority that has
failed, given up, lost hope for progress, but not a large enough
minority to gain and hold power.
A winning message is one that enlists the productive energies of all
sectors of society in a joint effort to improve, one that focuses on
building a better, more prosperous, more just society. Populist messages
are losers because they divide society and offer nothing more than
looting the swells. It doesn't take genius to see that hard times follow
A winning tax strategy message is one that proposes to raise adequate
revenue while increasing productive capacity, one which both feeds us
this winter and saves seed for next spring. This isn't easy, economists
disagree and politicians take mistaken positions, but the objective is
correct even when we fail to achieve it. The message is correct even
when we don't have sure answers about how we will proceed. The
combination of a message stating the objective and policy proposals to
achieve it provides a framework for debate that is engaging and
inclusive. The debate will not only improve the policy proposals, it
will attract supporters.
As a political philosophy populism is the ugliest form of self
governance, it is mob rule, majoritarianism. It fails to grasp the
significance of minority rights and needs in stable social systems.
One thing worth remembering: Clinton won in 92 by being relentlessly
positive and forward-looking. He wasn't just against Bush--he was for
something. A "new way," "bridge to the future," whatever the hell.
The point is, he was optimistic, and cheerful, and full of ideas. He
was an alternative.
I don't think the Dems can win this time around just by being anti-Bush.
Was that an error when you refered to Democrats as "we". You certainly do not sound like one.
Your comments were relevant to "Populism" as "Mob Socialism". This
is NOT what Edwards was promoting. Edwards talked about the virtue of
rewards and wealth going to those who worked for them, and pointed out
that Bush and his cronnies are not exibiting those values.
In the terms of current Left theory debate, Edwards was supporting
"Equality of Opportunity". You were criticising "Equality of Outcome".
I just saw Kevin's post below re: the war beween the DLC and the
liberals, and I meant to post that maybe Edwards' Polulist Capitalism
could unite the two. But if back40 is actually a Democrat, I fear the
DLC may just not get it.
Besides, if John Edwards were President and he wanted to know, "What would Abraham Lincoln do?", he could just ask him!
Or was that some other guy...
"Was that an error when you refered to Democrats as "we". You certainly do not sound like one."
You don't seem to be paying attention to the debates within the
Democratic party. But, your comments demonstrate the emptiness of
populist approaches to governance which try to exclude dissent and
demonize dissenters. This is a losing strategy.
Oh, come on! I say that you do not sound like a Democrat, and I am
excluding dissent and demonizing dissenters? Even if I was being
unneccessaryly catty, how much more mild could I have been? Lots of
people who do not sound like Democrats are not "demons". And I was
actually concerned that you might be a Republican just trying to snidely
suggest that all Democrats "believe that you can just vote yourself
wealth and comfort by taking it from those who have more."
Anyway, could you please respond substantively? Calpundit quoting
Edwards saying that we should not punish people who work hard, and
criticising Republicans as only wanting to tax people who work. You
respond by criticising Edwards as avocating looting and voting yourself
wealth from those who have more. Maybe Edwards has advocated such
things at other times, but you did not quote them, and the argument that
you are criticising is the exact opposite argument from the one Kevin
quoted. It is a new KIND of Populism.
Actually, I should have said a "different" kind of Populism rather
than a "new" kind. Capitalist Populism co-existed with socialist
populism for many years, but just somehow disapeared from view in the
mid 20th century.
Actually, if it was just the us-versus-them rhetoric that you objected
to, you might have a point. I think us-v-then is okay as long as "them"
is the Bush Administration, but if is taken as ALL "rich people", that
would be a bad thing. We can align outselves with some rich people
(Buffet, maybe?) and make a distinction between the "deserving" rich and
the "undeserving" rich, just like the Republicans used to make a
distiction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. (Ulike now,
when they are just against all poor.)
Good for Edwards. I like the speech very much and it pretty much
dovetails with my own thinking regarding the ultimate agenda of Bush's
Unfortunately a lot of Edwards' appeal rests on the "electability"
factor. He's a Southerner, good looking, great story, speaks well ...
I'm not sure how much else is there, though.
I agree with Henry, and others, about the speech. It was a great example of how to attack Bush's idiocies effectively.
As far as his appeal being based on "electability," though, what's
wrong with that? In my mind it's the top qualification for the
nomination. The main job is to beat Bush.
"The upper 1% pays what, about 37% of the income taxes"
This sort of thing implies that head taxes - you know, taxing every
person the exact same dollar amount, regardless of their income - is the
way to go. Why else would you compare the population count (upper 1%)
to percentage of government spending paid for (37% of income taxes)?
The upper 1% makes around 37% of income.