Frame Game

The “Tax Scheme” Scheme

Sunday on Meet the Press, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta demonstrated how Democrats plan to win the budget debate. Answer to Question 1: The GOP’s new legislation “uses up the entire surplus for this risky tax scheme.” Answer to Question 2: “It would clearly be better to … pay down $100 billion worth of debt than pass this risky tax scheme.” Answer to Question 3: Failure to cut taxes would be “better than seeing this risky tax scheme signed into law.” The way Podesta puts it, it’s not clear whether the “scheme” would cut your taxes or raise them. That’s the whole idea.

“Risky tax scheme” was coined in 1996 to refer to Bob Dole’s proposed 15 percent tax cut. According to Democratic National Committee and Clinton-Gore campaign ads, Dole’s plan was “risky” because it would “balloon the deficit” and force Congress “to cut Medicare, education, [and the] environment.” The rationale for calling it a tax “scheme”–in contrast to President Clinton’s tax “cuts”–was that it would “actually raise taxes on 9 million working people” by narrowing the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Clinton blasted Dole’s “risky tax scheme” in every speech, but that wasn’t enough for Al Gore. In the vice presidential debate, Gore used the phrase eight times. Pundits marveled at his robotic repetition. Dole’s campaign chairman protested that “leaving money in someone’s pocket is not a scheme” but later conceded that this “focus-group tested” phrase had killed the Republican ticket.

Now the deficit has turned into a surplus, and Dole’s 15 percent plan has given way to other tax-cut proposals. But that hasn’t stopped Gore from renewing his favorite chant. At a senior citizens’ rally last fall, he used the magic phrase three times. Republicans “are trying to come up with this huge, risky tax scheme and finance it by taking money out of the surplus that has been built up entirely because of the Social Security trust fund,” Gore warned. Two months later, he assailed George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” declaring, “Compassion means reserving the surplus until we save Social Security first … not going back to the risky tax schemes and economic upheaval of the ‘80s.”

Today, Gore and other Democrats use “risky tax scheme” with abandon, ignoring the disappearance of the circumstances that originally justified the phrase. In 1996, a tax cut was “risky” if it would “balloon the deficit.” In 1999, it’s “risky” if it would “blow the surplus.” In 1996, a “tax scheme” was a plan that ostensibly would raise taxes on some people while cutting taxes for others. In 1999, “tax scheme” is just a euphemism–actually, a malphemism–to conceal that your opponent is proposing a tax cut and to trick uninformed listeners into thinking that he might raise their taxes instead.

You can argue, as even some Republicans do, that the current tax-cut bill is a scheme because it favors the wealthy and various special interests. But it’s still a tax cut. The only reason to delete the word “cut” when referring to the bill is to withhold this information because you know it would incline your audience to support the bill. For years, Republicans have called budget outlays “spending,” “welfare,” and “waste” to conceal that half the money goes back to the middle class through entitlements. “Risky tax scheme” is the Democrats’ most concerted attempt to turn this tactic against the GOP. The message is: When Republicans mess with the tax code, somebody else is getting the money, and you’re getting screwed.

The price of this spin is that it insults people’s intelligence, in part through deceptive censorship and in part through mindless repetition. Podesta denounces the GOP’s “risky tax scheme” at least twice per interview. Two weeks ago, a DNC press release used the phrase four times in a span of 60 words. Gore seems incapable of appearing in public without reciting “risky tax scheme” three times. Rather than simply acknowledge the tax cut and argue its merits, he’s betting that we’re stupid. In the long run, that’s not a smart bet.