Tim Kaine: It's a Lie to Say That the 47 Percent Don't Understand the Cost of Government.

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 24 2012 9:32 AM

Tim Kaine: It's a Lie to Say That the 47 Percent Don't Understand the Cost of Government

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Democratic National Committee Chairman Governor Tim Kaine speaks as he visits a DC area Election Day phone bank, staffed by Organizing for America volunteers and Democratic activists to help turnout voters in key states around the country, during the midterm elections day in Washington, DC, on November 2, 2010. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, I stood among the throng at a Tim Kaine for U.S. Senate rally in Sterling, Va., and heard a 20-minute stump speech heavy on talk of "compromise" and the rich superPAC donors who can add "a lot of zeroes to the checks."* When Kaine referenced his last televised debate with George Allen, the crowd cheered. But I'd taken two whacks at Kaine for the way he answered a question at that debate, an odd response to the "47 percent" story. After the speech I asked Kaine why he said he was open to a "minimum income tax rate" for everybody.

"Am I open in the sense of 'willing to consider?'" he asked. "Absolutely. I just feel like we've got to have people who work together. What Virginians want—and I've seen this in fifteen years of elected office—is people who work together. Part of working together is being open to discussion. I have a very specific plan that I wanted to embrace."

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I interjected that Kaine's plan wasn't fundamental tax reform; it was a plan for dealing with the Bush tax cuts' coming expiration. "That's dealing with sequestration, going forward," he said. "[David] Gregory threw out a different idea—let's get to the long term issue, what would you think about this? I said two things. I'd be open to that discussion, but I insist that everyone recognize that there's sort of a lie being perpretated by the other side, that 47 percent of people are slackers. They pay more taxes, almost all of them, as a percentage [of income] than Romney does. I pointed that out in the same breath, pretty much, and it's important to realize. Look, I was the mayor of a city—urban area, high poverty area. I know the financial circumstances of folks. If you talk about a 'minimum tax,' it's probably [affecting] people who are already past whatever threshold you would set. But in terms of being open to the discussion, of course, that's how I'm going to treat my colleagues in the Senate. It's such a contrast. When George Allen started his campaign in January 2011, on the very first day, he signed and pledged allegiance to Grover [Norquist]. I'm not going to take any pledge other than my oath of office. But certainly, I'll be open to discussion."

So did Kaine reject the argument that people who didn't pay some minimum income tax didn't appreciate the cost of government—that they became, effectively, moochers? "I'm calling it a lie," he said. "I think people understand the cost of government. When I was governor, for example, we did a thing where we raised the threshold on the state income tax and took more than 100,000 working Virginians off the tax rolls. And we did it because it was a recession, times were tough, we wanted to help people at the low end. We also did it with full knowledge that people at the low end are paying a lot of taxes. I often say there's only one thing that ever makes me feel ashamed to be in public service. Every day, when I was governor, I'd meet people who would pay taxes to buy me health insurance—who didn't have health insurance for themselves. Anybody paying sales tax at the 7-11, that was going to buy health insurance for state employees. It is a lie to say that this 47 percent don't understand the cost of government, that they don't chip in, they don't have skin in the game. They do. These people probably pay a higher percentage than Romney does."

*Correction, Sept. 24, 2012: This post originally misspelled Sterling.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.