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The Wrong Tax Cut Debate

Posted on Sep 19, 2010

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

In any athletic contest, winning teams play their own game and force the other side to play that game too. The same being true in elections, it’s remarkable how timidity leads Democrats to fight this year’s campaign on Republican terms.

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Nowhere is this more obvious than on taxes, where the entire debate revolves around what to do about the cuts enacted under George W. Bush. Almost no one is talking about extending the progressive tax cuts that were included in President Obama’s stimulus program. Nor are we discussing the impending death of a pro-work public assistance program that, for a rather modest sum, has helped provide jobs to 250,000 low-income Americans.

At least on the Bush tax cuts, Obama has drawn a clear and sensible line. He’s said that Congress should extend the reductions for the middle class but not those for families earning more than $250,000 a year.

For the life of me, I don’t get why some Democrats are so afraid of this vote. Substantively, most of the 31 House Democrats who signed a letter last week urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to chicken out of this fight claim to be deficit hawks. Why then add $700 billion to the deficit for the purpose of continuing a tax program that disproportionately benefits millionaires?

And politically, why shouldn’t Democrats dare Republicans to vote against extending middle-class tax cuts and then have to explain that they opposed them because not enough money was going to the rich?


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But notice that this entire battle is being framed around Bush’s proposals. The parts of the Obama stimulus program that never get discussed—one reason it may be so unpopular—are its many tax reductions.

John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress and White House chief of staff under President Clinton, noted that the Obama tax cuts also expire at the end of this year: “I don’t understand why we’re only talking about extending George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which are heavily skewed to help the wealthiest Americans, yet no one’s discussing President Obama’s cuts, which are exclusively focused on middle-class families.”

I don’t understand it, either. The stimulus included not only the broad Making Work Pay tax cut that gave most families an $800 refundable tax credit, but also the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit, which were especially helpful to lower-income families.

If the child tax credit isn’t extended, 7.6 million children in low-income working families will lose all benefits from the provision, and an additional 10.5 million children will have their credit reduced. The biggest losses, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would be among families earning between $12,850 and $16,333, many of which include a parent working full time for the minimum wage.

Tell me again: Why is it more important to preserve millionaires’ tax cuts than to continue helping these far more vulnerable Americans? Why are Republican leaders who argue that failing to extend all of the Bush tax cuts would constitute a tax increase not saying exactly the same thing about the Obama tax cuts? Is it blind ideology, an exceptional solicitude for people with very high incomes, or the fact that Obama’s cuts were packaged into the dreaded stimulus?

And perhaps the biggest scandal of all—especially after last week’s Census Bureau finding that one in seven Americans is now living in poverty—would be to allow the expiration of an emergency fund included in the stimulus to subsidize jobs for low-income parents and young Americans.

The program will end on Sept. 30 unless the Senate joins the House in passing an extension. States have used over $1 billion from the fund to work with businesses to provide jobs, and this innovative approach is particularly helpful to communities hit hardest by the downturn. It embodies a value every conservative campaigns on: that the best anti-poverty program is a job.

Pelosi, at least, finally started talking late last week about the need to extend the Obama tax cuts. And you have to hope that Senate Republicans will let the jobs fund extension through, since it’s hard to think of a more Republican approach to alleviating poverty.

But you also have to ask why Democrats didn’t try long ago to move any of these items to the center of the debate. Why cede so much attention to the ideas of George W. Bush?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Bush tax cut debate, November 25, 2010 at 6:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Republicans will either vote to extend them ALL or block a vote to extend only the little peoples. The question is can they get enough Democrats to get them all extended?

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By Mike, September 21, 2010 at 2:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Why do those House Democrats want Pelosi to “chicken out” on this?  Simple - because it wil affect them personally.  All of these people in Washington are in the very upper income bracket and don’t represent the average person.

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By Kath Cantarella, September 21, 2010 at 5:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Progressive tax-cuts are the surest way to get Democrats re-elected. Democrats don’t appear to like being re-elected.

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By jtp@indaw, September 20, 2010 at 6:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The problem with the Democrats is the lack of real out front leadership. If Obama would PUBLICLY dump Rham Emanuel and tell the Centerist D’s and Blue Dog D’s to get in line with his program or be ready to pay the price for the next two years of his administration, his base would be energized overnight. Then he needs to tell all Democrats to get on the road and force the Republicans into a showdown vote ASAP on tax breaks for the middle class and poor only.

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By the worm, September 20, 2010 at 4:37 pm Link to this comment

Here’s what is really a disgrace:

At the beginning of each session, the Senate continues to ‘declare’ the ‘right’ to

Yes, at the beginning of the next session, the Senate could not adopt (i.e. not
‘declare’) its members’ ‘right’ to filibuster.

But, that would mean being held responsible for public policy.

Well. You know where that’s heading.

That’s the disgrace.

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By felicity, September 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm Link to this comment

It’s called extortion.  Democrats, like Republicans
are victims of extorting criminals on the Street who
vow they won’t ‘protect’ you, fund your political
campaign, if you don’t legislate in their favor.  (Of
course, if the Mob forces the mom-and-pop-store on
the corner to pay money for protection, it’s

Our hearts should bleed? for the 1% of Americans who
hold about $64 trillion of the wealth in this country
(and that is $2 trillion more than the other 90% of
us hold?)

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By M L, September 20, 2010 at 12:16 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is simply a litmus test for the democrats and republicans to determine who is on the side of Main Street and who is on the side of Wall Street. VOTE then throw the BUMs out!!!

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By Hammond Eggs, September 20, 2010 at 11:20 am Link to this comment

“For the life of me, I don’t get why some Democrats are so afraid of this vote.”

The fact you don’t understand explains how you got your gig with the Warshington Post.

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By gstoddard, September 20, 2010 at 9:13 am Link to this comment

Is it any mystery why the Democrats are going to lose so badly in November?
Why oh why do they have to be so defensive and almost ashamed of what the
party should stand for?

Bill Clinton was a breath of fresh air on Sunday. Can’t the Democrats have the
courage of their convictions and persuasively and positively make their case to
the public? They passed a health care bill that will extend coverage to 33
million people. Isn’t that a significant moral achievement? They passed an
imperfect financial reform bill. They are establishing a Consumer Protection
Agency and Elizabeth Warren will have a seat at the decision table. And so

But instead as pointed out here, they continue to play defense on the
Republican’s home field.

It’s no wonder that the troops are discouraged and apathetic.

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By frank1569, September 20, 2010 at 8:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No, see, the problem isn’t how to reframe the truth better.

The Republican Party has morphed into a GOP cult that believes what it is told to believe. Period. It cannot be reasoned with; logic is useless; facts and figures are moot.

If they say the sky is green and anyone who says different is a Muslim socialist Lao tribesman, end of discussion.

Seriously, we’ve all been trying and trying - and, still, the sky is green. When do ‘we’ finally accept that we’re dealing with a loony cult that will never, ever stop pursuing their wacky goals until the Rapture?

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By spacekc929, September 20, 2010 at 8:09 am Link to this comment

Yet another of the various examples that proves that Democrats don’t know how to do… well, anything. Not sure how we’ve survived this long. The main Democratic message is great which is why so many identify, but no one in the Democratic party leadership has a) guts or b) debate savvy. Or, they really aren’t working for the people at all while under the guise of being the People’s Party, which, at this point in time, wouldn’t surprise me.

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By SoTexGuy, September 20, 2010 at 6:19 am Link to this comment

I submit this as to why the Democrats allow the Republicans to frame the Tax debate, the War debate, the debate on the Economy, the Environment, Health Care reform (ad nauseum)..

That’s the way the Democratic leadership likes it!

Plus, they love the ‘opposition’ role and have exploited it even as they have held majorities in Congress! Continuing to portray themselves as shouldering Progressive ideas and ideals ‘uphill’ against the wall of Republican nay-sayers!

Facts about this Congress and Administration suggest the Dems are actually in love with most everything Bush did! .. and are practically in lockstep with the Rethuglicans even now..


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By Mike789, September 20, 2010 at 5:36 am Link to this comment

Hear ye hera ye! We have information that if the Bush tax cuts expire for the “needy” highest wealth holders, a major shift in attitude from that sector will emit from all broadcast media. Be apprised: Complaints will spill forth from every country club, yacht marina, gambling casino and summer mansion making plain the suffering and adversity that must be endured to sustain life affluent style levels.

I remember hearing about a study done to assess emotional security experienced by people from various levels of wealth. It was found that the wealthiest felt the least secure and would seek to build more wealth to compensate for this sense of insecurity.

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