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Political Animal

The Land of the Free

By Brian Morton | Posted 11/6/2002

Moderator: "What do you say specifically to what the vice president said tonight--he said it many, many times--that your tax cut benefits the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans?"

George W. Bush: "Of course it does."

--from the third presidential debate, Oct. 17, 2000

In the end, in our democracy, it always comes down to money.

No matter what the outcome of yesterday's vote was, both nationally and here in Maryland, the issue of the future is money.

Maryland and the nation are both looking at deficits, but the idea of raising taxes will continue to be the last thing any politician will propose. This is the legacy of the Reagan era, the idea that you can defeat any Democrat at the polls simply by shouting "liberal" over and over, and the idea that, as Americans, we can have it all and not pay for it.

Many will say, "But we pay already. We are taxed and taxed and taxed."

Compared to what? The tax rates are nowhere near what they were in the 1960s, and we went through a war and sent men to the moon. After the Reagan years, the idea flourished that government is a hindrance, people are overtaxed, and all the programs people currently enjoy can be saved after all the fraud, waste, and abuse is cut from government.

Well, guess what? It's 20 years later. The only time the Dow ballooned to 10,000 was after a tax plan that increased taxes proportionately on the wealthy in 1993. Then the right wing repeated the phrase "the largest tax increase in American history" (when in fact it wasn't, compared in real dollars to the Bush I tax increase) even louder than their standard cries of "liberal."

The only time in the last 20 years the budget went out of deficit and we ran a surplus was after the tax plan of 1993 (Ronald Reagan ran on balancing the budget for eight years and never even came close). The only time we stood a chance of paying down money on the national debt was following the tax plan of 1993.

Reagan's miracle was convincing regular Americans that they were being treated, tax-wise, like the rich. "You're overtaxed," he said in that avuncular way. And the supply-siders got together and kept repeating the mantra that we can cut the government's income, still spend like crazy monkeys on defense (in peacetime, no less), cut the ubiquitous "waste, fraud, and abuse" from government, and all live happily ever after.

Twenty years later, after we heard how David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, cooked the books and admitted it, and we still can't get over the idea that you can't just keep cutting taxes and still maintain Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

It's funny how Walter Mondale got back in the political arena again. Mondale's biggest moment in the 1984 debates was when Reagan attempted to start with his "there you go again . . ." line and Mondale pointed out how the last time Reagan said, "There you go again," he followed it with a proposal to cut Social Security benefits by 25 percent.

Now we have a president who, in essence, lied (and was called on it) about how his tax plan could work without hurting Social Security. Well, guess what? Two years have come and gone, along with the surplus (plus an additional $159 billion more in debt), and Bush is still pushing for a permanent tax cut!

So, let's do the elementary math: Social Security costs are going up. Medicare costs are going up. Prescription drug plans are going up. The stock market is drifting down. Consumer confidence is drifting down. We're allegedly at war with somebody and, before the next 12 months are out, could be at war with somebody else. Nothing's getting cheaper, and the president is proposing that we cut the nation's taxes further--at least, for the top tier of income earners--after they have already made out like bandits for the better part of a decade. On top of that, the president wants to eliminate what he calls the "death tax"--another tax that hits hard only the top 2 percent of wealthy Americans--because, like Reagan before him, he wants to sell regular Americans on the idea that they're living like Kenneth Lay.

The sad part of all this is that any credible opposition to this anti-tax juggernaut has been co-opted. It was too easy to beat up anyone against the Bush tax cut; the average voter was bought off of his or her outrage by a $300 check in the mail. "Did you send it back?" was the taunting retort.

Not only are we easy, people, but we're cheap. If someone had asked you then, "Which would you rather have, $300 or a punch in the face?" the answer is pretty obvious. But alas, what you weren't told is that, later on, you'd still get the punch in the face.

And the only person who had the guts and the integrity to call that tax cut for what it was, and put the courage of his convictions behind him, has been laid to rest in a grave in Minnesota.

But it doesn't matter, because we still want it all. And we don't want to pay for it.

Maybe that's why they call it the land of the free.

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