Howard Dean's incomplete damage control.

Politics and policy.
Jan. 7 2004 4:19 PM

The NPR Debate

Howard Dean's incomplete damage control.

(Continued from Page 1)

The tone of Dean's answer reeked of Michael Dukakis. The question was personal, but Dean responded with statistics and principles. "There was no middle-class tax cut for most people," he said. "For this individual, yes. But most people's tuitions have gone up. … We cannot keep telling people we're going to give them all the programs they want and then there's not going to be any sacrifice."

I understand Dean's logic. He believes in sound policy even when it seems cold. So did Dukakis. Dean believes in fiscal responsibility. So did Paul Tsongas. Dean believes in telling the truth: The government must raise taxes to pay for services. So did Walter Mondale and Bruce Babbitt. As Lieberman noted in the NPR debate, "I don't know of a case where a Democratic candidate for president has been elected who called for a massive increase in taxes on the middle class." Contrast Dean's eat-your-spinach message with the candy offered by Dick Gephardt. When asked Tuesday what programs he would eliminate, Gephardt named nothing outside the military. "I'm going to give $3,000 to the average family in economic benefits instead of the $500 or $700 that they get under the Bush tax cuts," Gephardt promised.

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Dean did argue that his health-insurance proposal and his college-aid program would compensate the guy in New Hampshire for the loss of his tax cut. Dean added that "while individuals like the caller will have higher taxes"—a quote sure to be repeated out of context in Republican ads—"if we were all paying the same taxes we paid when Bill Clinton was president, we could have the same kind of economy we had." But Kerry demonstrated why this argument won't work. "If [people's] property tax went up and if other taxes have gone up because of [Bush's tax cuts], nothing that Howard is proposing lowers that burden," said Kerry. "In fact, he's going to add to it. … They're going to pay additional taxes now on top of the health-care costs, on top of the tuition costs."

It's clear from the way Dean drags his heels on this issue that he thinks he's putting fiscal honesty before politics. He forgets that on defense spending, he long ago surrendered that conceit. In June, well before he had fully analyzed military outlays, Dean ruled out "cutting the Pentagon budget when we're in the middle of difficulty with terror attacks." Tuesday, he listed various military needs but never explained why a shrewd fiscal manager like himself couldn't find enough fat in the exploding defense and homeland security budgets to fund real needs and still have savings left over. The reason Dean promises not to cut defense spending is that he needs that pledge to get elected, fiscal honesty be damned.

Why doesn't he strike the same moral bargain on middle-class taxes? Budget balancing doesn't explain it: He could get the money for health insurance and college aid by taking even more from the rich, as Lieberman and Wes Clark propose. The answer, I think, lies in Dean's choice of the word "sacrifice." He thinks you ought to pay for what you get from the government. He's betting that you'll respect his candor on that point more than you'll resent him for trying to raise your taxes. I think it's a noble bet, and a bad one.

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