No one was surprised when Clinton vetoed the repeal of the marriage tax penalty as passed by the Congress. He promised to, from the outset. Still, from the point of view of the Republican Party, and George W. in particular, the timing of his veto couldn’t have been better. With the veto he is saying that Washington should never, under any circumstances, and no matter how high forecasted surpluses grow, loosen its grip on the finances of American families.
The Republican bill has obvious economic and social merit. On the economic side, Americans are wildly overtaxed. Any bill that would privatize some of the loot currently confiscated by Washington deserves support, on grounds that private wealth is productive while government taxation makes society less prosperous than it otherwise would be. On the social side, it is immoral for government to penalize people for choosing to form families, which are the very foundation of a stable and civilized society.
Why did he veto it? First he used the usual rhetorical tricks. He claimed that a tax cut is a “giveaway,” when actually it’s a “give back,” and that cutting taxes is “fiscally reckless,” as versus his constant drumbeat for huge new government programs. He said he favors a marriage tax cut (oh sure!), just not this particular bill. The White House also reminded reporters that Clinton agreed only to sign the bill if it came with a new drug-welfare program.
Al Gore immediately weighed in to back Clinton’s action. “I do support the veto,” he said. Like Clinton, Gore added that he supports “the right kind of repeal of the marriage tax,” but he opposes (see if you can follow this) “going beyond working families and not giving tax relief to people who are in the upper brackets and people who are not even married who are benefitted by the version that was passed.” After eight years of this nonsense, we know what he means. The “right kind” of tax relief is no tax relief.
It’s bracing to realize that for all of Clinton’s supposed political savvy, he would suddenly permit himself and his party to be on display as the big taxers they are-at a time when upwards of 70 percent of people say they would prefer tax cuts to more government spending, while another 20 percent probably lied to the pollster. At the same time, he allows the Republicans to appear as the tax cutters they are not. Some press reports say the White House and Congress will come to a compromise. I say, no chance: the GOP will ride this through November.
Think back to 1992 when Clinton put on his New Democrat mask. Middle-class tax relief was the plank in his platform that underscored his claim not to be a big-government left-liberal. In advertising and debates, he did his best to exploit widespread public anger at President Bush for betraying his iron-clad promise not to raise taxes. Tax policy was the underlying theme of that year’s election, and, on the margin, Democrats actually appeared to be more trustworthy.
Instead of cutting taxes in his first term, of course, he raised them, in addition to pushing a vast number of statist programs. The Republicans hounded him on the issue in 1994, and generally ran a hard-core, anti-government campaign. The subtext of the Contract for America was that Clinton couldn’t be trusted to keep HIS contracts. But at the grass-roots level, the rhetoric was even better: the average Republican candidate for the House that year sounded libertarian themes across the board, demanding an end to Clinton’s taxes, gun controls, social welfarism, and silly overseas adventures. Let it not be forgotten that it was these themes that put a Republican majority in the House!
However, in 1996, the Republicans missed the main chance to capitalize on Clinton’s string of betrayals. They nominated Senator Bob Dole, long known in Republican circles as never having met a tax increase he couldn’t warm up to. Dole limply and preposterously tried to campaign for tax relief, but surveys showed that voters saw him as merely duplicitous on the issue. Again, the Democratic ticket campaigned to the right and hammered Dole for his high-tax voting record. Again, the Democrats swept to victory, partially with the public expectation that they would provide middle-class tax relief.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, then, the Democrats haven’t held the White House because big-government ideological and multicultural leftism became fashionable in the 1990s. They held the White House by force of Clinton’s personality combined with an ongoing subterfuge that he led a party of New Democrats that favored, among many good ideas, lower taxes.
One problem, of course, is that Clinton always changes the rationale at the last minute. He likes to justify his vetoing of good bills by saying that it should have been linked to the passage of a bad program.
But a more fundamental problem is Republican cowardice. The GOP could have highlighted the difference between Clinton rhetoric and his practice much earlier by sending him a long series of tax-cut bills. Instead, Republican developed this very strange idea that they should only bother passing bills that Clinton wouldn’t veto or which had enough support to override the veto.
This is absurd. The truly heroic Congress would lay out a principled vision of government through its legislative agenda, whether or not the president approves. So far as I know, Ron Paul of Texas is the only member of Congress who doesn’t play vote-trading games. Instead, he votes strictly according to constitutional principle-and somehow keeps winning elections.
Thus, even more surprising than Clinton’s veto is that Republicans finally got around to doing what they had promised to do six years ago. We are not used to the Republican Congress following through with some slight reprieve in the grip the tax state has over Americans.
Alas, Clinton prevented it from coming to fruition. Alas, the Republicans may be secretly pleased because it gives them the chance to stage another performance of their anti-tax act. And once again, overtaxed Americans will continue to be held hostage in a crass game of political symbolism.