In tax deal, they reveal their envy
LIBERALS AND Democrats have been melting down, blowing up, and freaking out over President Obama’s agreement with Republican leaders to extend Bush-era tax rates for another two years. “An absolute disaster,’’ fumes Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in an interview on MSNBC. “Anger of House Dems boils over,’’ Politico reports. “An Odious Tax Deal,’’ editorializes The New York Times. “Moral corruptness,’’ seethes Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
“No amount of lipstick,’’ roars a headline at Democratic Underground, “can make this pig of a deal acceptable.’’
Why is the left so furious?
I realize, of course, that liberals were against the Bush tax cuts from the start. I know that Obama vowed time and again to let those tax cuts expire for households earning more than $250,000 a year. He made that pledge as a candidate for president, and he was still making it on the campaign trail this fall. “We are ready . . . to give tax cuts to every American making $250,000 or less,’’ the president said in Cleveland on Sept. 8. “For any income over this amount, the tax rates would just go back to what they were under President Clinton.’’
But Obama swore to end plenty of other Bush policies that nevertheless remain intact. Why aren’t Democrats in a blind rage over the tens of thousands of US troops still deployed in Iraq? Or his extension of the Patriot Act? Or the ongoing rendition of terror suspects to third countries for interrogation?
Roll Call reported last week that liberal activists angry about Obama’s compromise on tax cuts “crashed two phone lines at the White House’’ and are planning to do the same to the Senate. Why have they never overloaded the White House switchboard with calls protesting the continued use of the presidential signing statements for which Bush was so sharply criticized? Or warrantless wiretapping? Or over the fact that Guantanamo still hasn’t been shut down?
Of all the ways in which “George W. Obama’’ (as a Village Voice headline dubbed him in January) has disappointed his ideological supporters, why is it the prospect of not raising taxes on the wealthy that drives them into such a frenzy?
After all, it isn’t as though Obama’s deal with the GOP singles out the rich for a windfall. It is simply an agreement not to single them out for a loss. And it isn’t as though the affluent don’t already shoulder an income-tax burden disproportionately higher than their share of the national income. In 2008, the top 1 percent of tax filers accounted for 20 percent of all income earned that year, yet they paid 38 percent of all federal individual income taxes. Federal income tax rates are progressive to a fault. So why are “progressives’’ spitting nails at the thought of leaving those rates where they are?
In an interview on Tuesday, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell demanded to know how Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, could “justify going along with a larger tax cut, for those who really don’t need it.’’ Gregg replied: “Well, my view is: It’s their money.’’
That would be my view, too — and the view of most Americans, who are not conditioned to equate wealth with dispossession, and have not been raised to resent the rich. The premise of Mitchell’s question — that government has the strongest claim on money the affluent “really don’t need’’ — strikes most non-liberals as not just wrong, but pernicious.
To the left, the opposite is true. “We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one,’’ Ronald Reagan, a recovered liberal, once said, “without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.’’ As long as there are have-nots, therefore — and there will always be have-nots — it is pernicious for government not to confiscate more wealth from the haves.
This envy and resentment, which liberals think of as sensitivity and compassion, are at the very core of the liberal conception of good government. That is why “tax cuts for the rich’’ gets them so emotional and angry — and it only deepens their outrage that most Americans don’t think the way they do. Hence the Democrats’ apoplexy. And hence their unbridled fury at Obama for agreeing to a compromise that a majority of voters seem to like.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.