Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why Don't Dems Soak the Rich?

I suspect that Jonathan Chait is correct that the deal Peter Orszag floated today in his NYT column debut doesn't really work.  Orszag would extend all the Bush tax cuts for now (or, in partisan language, replace the planned Republican tax increases with new temporary across-the-board Democratic tax cuts) in exchange to ending them all in a couple of years.  Chait argues persuasively that neither side will bite on this offer.

What puzzles me, still, is why Democrats don't demagogue this issue.  Polls pretty clearly show that, at least in the abstract, people love soak-the-rich tax policies.  So why don't Democrats run on them?  Even if Democrats actually believe that soak-the-rich is bad policy (do they?), one would think that they would be inclined to run on the issue, and then trade it away or ignore it after the election.  Of course, quite a few individual Democrats do run on this issue, and Obama's policy positions in 2008 were in that direction, although at least as I heard it his rhetoric really wasn't.  And it's not as if Democrats are too principled to demagogue an issue, as they've proved in cases from Social Security to trade.  So: why not more bash-the-rich rhetoric in support of soak-the-rich tax policy?  Is there something in the polls beyond the basic numbers?  Are Dems gunshy about it because of some prior experience?  Any ideas?


  1. Why bite the hand that feeds you?

    I'm going to guess that...
    1) Big Democratic party donors with sensitive egos hate "soak the rich" rhetoric & policy. Party funders want to be celebrated as "savvy businessmen", not fatcats dodging taxes.

    2) Many Democratic congressmen want lucrative lobbyist/consulting gigs after they leave office. Why antagonize their future employers?

    3) Many Democratic congressmen are rich themselves, and live in a bubble with plenty of rich friends, and simply don't have the appetite to engage in class warfare on behalf of the poor.

    What's the worst thing that could happen? Maybe lose an election but get rewarded with an awesome job like Harold Ford or Tom Daschle?

  2. Well said, James! Not many U.S. politicians have built their careers on "soaking the rich." A few politicians have dared to "mildly inconvenience the rich." Some of these, Teddy Kennedy, F.D.R., for example, have been pretty rich themselves.

  3. Jon,
    See the Homer Gets a Tax Cut piece by Hacker & Pierson in PS a few years ago.
    People liked Bush's tax cuts not because they got them but because they aspired to get them.

  4. Homer Gets a Tax Cut was written by Bartels, not H&P.

  5. James is right on. Besides that, the rich own the Dems, just like they do the Repugs.

    And it's hard to give the word "soak" any credence when you look at where tax policy has gone over the last 60 years. Wealth disparity has never been greater, and tax policy is a big part of why.


  6. 'Cause they think they can't buy TV ad time on $5 donations.

    Wish they'd try it, anyway.

  7. Besides what everybody said above, its also because many Democrats probably fear that the Republicans would be better at the counter-attacking their demagoguery. Also, they might fear pissing off an important segment of their base that doesn't like demagoguery and prefers wonkery. Plus, many Democratic politicians themselves no longer go in for LBJ/FDR style demagoguery with the exceptions of Grayson, Weiner, and a few others.

  8. It may be that a significant part of the population has come to believe in some version of supply side theory, in which lower marginal tax rates are good for the whole economy.

  9. What puzzles me, still, is why Democrats don't demagogue this issue...>

    OMG Jonathan. How many columns have you written where you write "What puzzles me, still, is why Democrats don't {fill in the blank}"??

    This is like the 100th time we've all said something to this effect. Let's start with the big one: why didn't the Democrats make a big issue about the intelligence failures that led us to war in Iraq? Why no national inquiry? Besides just being the right thing to do, wouldn't it be better to go into the midterms examining the GOP's massive national failure of the past 8 years, not Obama's tepid approach to stimulus?

    Our Democratic Party lacks leadership. Real, clear leadership. I know that is ostensibly supposed to be the President but the president is in governing mode and is not thinking about Democratic Party messaging and all that. There seems to be a real void in this one regard.

    So yeah I don't understand a lot of stuff the Democrats do and don't do.

  10. What Southern Beale said. The Democratic Party lacks leadership. Tepid is the right word. Obama has proven to be a tepid follower of his political advisers and the party lacks a comprehensive communications strategy. You can't really demagogue effectively without a good communications strategy.

    One thing you can say about the Republicans, they have a formidable message machine. They may have few ideas and the ones they have are laughably bad, but they have everyone talking about them.

  11. I've always speculated that Democrats were softer than they could be on the rich because they were afraid getting tough would push them to funding the right.

  12. I think that its more than just tepid leadership that is hurting the Democratic Party. Its also that the Democratic base is divided on issues of style. The majority of the Democratic base and independent liberals and progressives would love it if Democratic politicians would go into attack mode against the Republicans on numerous issues. Its why Grayson and Weiner are popular. Its also why LBJ is enjoying in a revival among liberals and progressives who were born after the Vietnam War.

    OTOH, there is a large part of the Democratic base that would be against demagogic tactics for numerous reasons. On other liberal blogs that I read, whenever this issue comes up, there is always a large number of people who believe that demagoguery goes agaisnt liberal principles and they do not want their politicians to indulge in Republican tactics. For more than a few libeals and progressives like milquetoast politicians and prefer Adlai Stevenson to LBJ. This is especialyl true among the older ones because of residue hatred against LBJ over the Vietnam War.

    Democratic leadership or lack there of is only part of the issue. Another part of the issue is a loathing of such tactics among more than a few liberals.

  13. .... they were afraid getting tough would push them to funding the right.

    But they already do that ....

  14. Can we please clarify the concept of a political party's "base"? Are we talking "base" as

    1) the most loyal and faithful rank and file of a political party, that can be counted upon to vote for the party's candidate on election day, or

    2) the most radical, extremist, loony, far-out ideologues on the political side of the spectrum?

    Granted, both of those concepts reflect the GOP base, but #2 does NOT reflect the Democratic Party base. The strident shrill liberals of the blogosphere do NOT represent the Democratic Party base. Many of them actually are Naderites - in fact, Arianna campaigned for Nader, and I defy anyone to show me where Glenn Greenwald ever said he was a Democrat. I doubt anyone could show me where Jane Hampsher identifies as a Democrat either. These people scream about being the "base" of the Party but they don't represent the base of the Democratic Party, as in the reliable voting members of the Party. In fact, they'd be the base of the Green Party if the Greens ever found some competent leadership.

    The Democratic Party base is liberal in the classical sense: labor, various minority and immigrant groups, women, etc. The "base" of the Democratic Party, i.e., the reliable Democratic voters, are nowhere as shrill and radical as the liberal blogosphere.


  15. re: Southern Beale

    Yes you're exactly right. Maybe more so or maybe the Dems are just fooling themselves.

  16. James, you have a very good point. Determining the membership of the Democratic base is much harder than determining the membership of the Republican base.

    I'd basically define the Democratic base as one and distinguish between one and two as you did. The Democratic base are those people that would vote Democratic no matter what.

  17. Lee R, I agree with your basic point that Dems are conflicted between those preferring a more muscular tough-minded leader who also possesses a strong amoral end-justifies-means side (the Stern Daddy Figure), vs the good-gov't/good politics softer type of reason, policy and ethics (i.e., Mommy). As for the latter group though, I'm not sure we need to go so far back and pick on poor Adlai.

    He was after all running a hopeless campaign against the major hero of WW2, though his problems had less to do with milquetoastery than an inability to understand modern politics as it relates to tv advertising, then secondly a failure to understand that with his major campaign addresses he should have been trying to reach the broad middle instead of the Harvard faculty.

    For milquetoast, how about Mike Dukakis of 1988? The guy who took an 18-pt halftime lead from the convention and proceeded to squander it because he didn't want to "get down in the gutter" with Poppy and Atwater's dirty campaign.

    Now, my disagreement is with your mistaken depiction of LBJ the president (as opposed to the strong-arming maj leader)

    For more than a few libeals and progressives like milquetoast politicians and prefer Adlai Stevenson to LBJ. This is especialyl true among the older ones because of residue hatred against LBJ over the Vietnam War.

    LBJ came to office with a gale force wind at his back following Dallas, which greatly aided him in getting lib legislation passed from JFK's unfinished pile. So did the landslide '64 election, after which he enjoyed (for a while) hurricane force winds with that overwhelming and now solidly progressive working majority. Iow, force of personality had little to do with his domestic achievements in 64-5. And LBJ could never budge all those southern racist Dems on civil rights, you know, the pols he was most friendly with during his long senate tenure -- so much for LBJ's alleged ability to twist arms.

    And by 1966, with the unnecessary war ramping up, with the inner cities exploding, with inflation fears bubbling up, he was no longer either popular nor effective with Congress. Of course by early 1968 he was so unpopular in the land and with his party that he had to publicly announce he would not seek another term. By my math, that makes about half his presidency an ineffective one, and by my analysis of the actual context of his early governing, it means it's awfully helpful to have a huge cong'l majority and perhaps one other "sympathy" factor to work with.

    Then there is all that stuff about how LBJ allowed Nixon and that campaign to basically steal the 1968 election (the so-called October Surprise re thwarting the Paris peace talks) by not calling him out publicly for it and announcing a Justice Dep't investigation. Researcher Rbt Parry calls that event the beginning of Dem wimpery. I think he makes a good point.

    Dems like FDR and JFK showed that a president can be successful, popular and enjoy the respect of the country and our allies abroad without being either milquetoast or some crude threatening authoritarian type who cuts moral/legal corners while starting unnecessary wars and lying to the public about it.

  18. @Anonymous 7:01pm:
    Oops. Good catch.

  19. Brodie, the main reason I went back to Adlai Stevenson is that I wanted to demonstrate that this split among liberals and progressives is a long-standing problem. I could probably go back even further with a little research and find liberals who thought that FDR or TR's firebrand like speeches were distasteful.

    Its not necessarily an American thing either but a center-left thing in general. I'm sure that during Atlee's time at PM, there were Labour's base was divided between those that liked Clement Atlee's milquetoasty demeanor and those that wanted more fire and brimestone.

    On LBJ, its going to be a we have to agree to disagree issue.

  20. Lee Ratner:
    Do you ever notice the Democrats that are the most inspirational? The people still talk lovingly about long after they are gone. RFK. Wellstone.


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