Leader Blues

Monday, April 20, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Tea party comes up empty

The Tax Day Tea Parties scattered across Arkansas and much of the country Wednesday were by all accounts festive affairs, a chance for people to emote patriotic fervor, which is nearly always a good thing.

But as a political movement, the parties could not have been bracing for the organizers, who hoped it would regenerate the Republican Party by arousing the country against the new president.

Judging by the coverage in the Arkansas and national media, the speechmaking at the tax protests reflected the underlying sham of the movement. It consists of about half naďveté and half hypocrisy.

A common theme of the speakers is that of Dick Armey, the lobbyist who came up with the idea of the parties, and the Fox News network, which promoted them. It is that President Obama and the Democrats are raising people’s taxes to heights unknown in American history and impelling the country toward socialism.

You got the message in the nearly daily cartoons in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, which caricatured the president as an evil man grasping for people’s money. A Friday cartoon showed a destitute figure holding a tax form stamped in big letters “SEND IT ALL” and the caption said, “President Obama calls for a simpler tax code.”

People at the tax protests seemed to be on the verge of tears about the impending tax grab by the new president and the Democratic Congress.

But here are the facts: Ninety-five percent of them are going to get a tax cut from the Obama administration. Our guess — we can’t be sure — is that every person who showed up at one of the Arkansas tea parties will be getting a tax cut, not an increase, if Congress adopts the tax changes outlined in the Obama budget blueprint. Those who will be getting a small tax increase — they are earning more than $250,000 a year — were spending their day more comfortably than carrying signs on the Capitol steps or in one of the street venues around the state.

Those who really will see their taxes go up will see them returned to the levels of 2000. The George W. Bush tax laws specified that the tax rates in 2010 and 2011 would return automatically to those levels.

When the top marginal tax rate and the other changes wrought for the wealthiest Americans in 2001, 2002 and 2003 is restored — and it may take some Republican support in Congress for even that to happen this year — they will be paying income taxes at a lower rate than under just about every president since World War I, which includes Republicans Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

Yes, Hoover brought them to a lower level in 1929, shortly before the Great Depression, but raised them sharply higher in 1932 before leaving office to stanch a growing deficit. And, yes, the top rate went slightly lower in Reagan’s second term even while he was raising taxes in other ways in the Tax Reform Act of 1986.

So who is the socialist?

The other part of the protest, the mushrooming public debt and the big burst in deficit spending, is better premised. Who cannot be nervous that the debt is growing at all, much less by a trillion dollars a year?

Only eight years ago, when Bill Clinton left office, budget surpluses were forecast as far as the eye could see and Washington was using surpluses to pay down the national debt.

But it was a Republican president and a Republican Congress, though with help most of the time from Democrats like our own Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, that reversed the surplus and sent the nation into the biggest deficit-spending spiral in history.

Most of the big surge in the deficit this year is owing to the Bush administration’s emergency financial rescue last fall, to which Democrats were a willing party.

If President Obama’s big stimulus program, which will add to the deficit this year and next, works and the economy halts its swoon then the empty rhetoric of the Tax Day protests will be forgotten. But the organizers are betting on doom — a depression and a burgeoning debt that defies remedy short of a truly confiscatory tax policy.

Then they can say, “I told you so.” It is not a strategy that a great political party ought to embrace.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.