Pay for Preschool by Cutting Taxes on the Rich

President Obama arrives at the White House on Thursday.

Pool photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Near the end of an excellent column about the epistemic modesty and considerable virtues of the Obama administration’s preschool plans, David Brooks lets loose with a joke:

President Obama has taken on a big challenge in a realistic and ambitious way. If Republicans really believe in opportunity and local control, they will get on board.

Jonathan Chait agrees with Brooks about the merits but has a slightly less funny path to feasibility in mind that involves a trade-off for Social Security cuts. The big problem with Chait’s idea is that liberals hate it, and conservatives hate it, too. Status quo bias is amazing.

The sensible, feasible way to obtain the $100 billion over 10 years that Obama needs to finance his plan is to “pay for it” with a large tax cut for the rich. Democrats like to spend new money on new programs, and Republicans like to cut taxes on the rich. As I wrote in my column on Marco Rubio’s embrace of Bushonomics, there really is a difference between the Bush approach and the Boehner approach, and this is exactly where the rubber hits the road. The Bush approach—cut taxes and increase spending to make it politically workable—brought us a large increase in K-12 education spending (No Child Left Behind) and a substantial expansion of Medicare coverage in 2003. Back in the pre-Bush years, a similar approach brought us SCHIP. Bill Clinton got federal money to give health care to poor kids, and got Newt Gingrich to agree to “pay for it” by cutting the capital gains tax.

We haven’t seen any of these kind of deals during the Obama administration. That’s in part because Barack Obama is a sincere deficit hawk, and in part because Republicans responded to John McCain’s defeat by becoming more ideologically rigorous on the spending front. But if you want a bipartisan agreement to create a new federal program, then paying for it is the last thing you want to do. You want to trade it for the tax cuts conservatives crave.