350 Tax Increases?

President Bush applies the Powell Doctrine to running for re-election.

Offensive tactics

President Bush seems to be running his re-election campaign on the basis of the Powell Doctrine: Go in with overwhelming force from the start, and strike a blow from which the enemy can never recover. Like the United States in Iraq, the Bush campaign has superior fire power and far more money. The lesson of Vietnam, articulated by Colin Powell, is: Use your superiority—don’t fritter it away in gradual escalation.

One of the weapons in Bush’s arsenal is an old family heirloom. Bush fired it himself at his big Florida rally over the weekend. He asserted that John Kerry had voted for higher taxes 350 times during Kerry’s 20 years in the Senate. Vice President Dick Cheney and other presidential surrogates have been using this statistoid for several weeks, and it has been picked up and repeated in the conservative media echo chamber. In 1992, Bush’s father charged that Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, had raised taxes 128 times. This shabby and deeply disingenuous allegation ultimately became an embarrassment to the elder Bush, but it took weeks and months of pounding by the media and the opposition to make it this way. I’m hoping to spare us all that with a Powell-Doctrine-like strike early on.

The purpose of a phony statistic like this one isn’t really to persuade people of its own accuracy. The purpose is to trap your opponent in a discussion he doesn’t want to have (in this case about his past votes about taxes), bog the discussion down in silly details that few people will follow, and leave a general impression that where there is smoke, there must be fire. And certainly, if what matters to you above all else is paying fewer taxes, you’d be a fool to choose Kerry over Bush. But this isn’t about taxes; it’s about honesty. Honesty means more than factual accuracy, it means avoiding disingenuousness: not talking crap when you know it’s crap. If that matters to you above all, you may be out of luck with either candidate this election. But if you wish to measure comparative crapology, this 350-tax-increases business may be hard for Kerry to top.

Counting tax increases is an absurd way to measure a candidate’s general propensity about taxes. George the elder’s list about Clinton tax increases included things like an extension of dog-racing season, on the logic that a longer season meant more tax revenue. George the younger’s first item asserts that “In 1995, Kerry Voted For [a] Resolution That Said Middle Class Tax Cuts Were Not Wise.” This turns out to be a vote in the midst of that nearly forgotten frenzy, the Gingrich revolution. It was a vote against a particular tax cut of $700 billion, on a resolution declaring with almost tautological justice that subtracting $700 billion from revenue would make it harder to balance the budget. The resolution passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate, but a decade later the Republican president uses it to tar his Democratic opponent.

The documentation on the GOP Web site about Kerry’s supposed 350 votes to increase taxes actually lists only 67 votes “for higher taxes.” Most of these are votes against a tax cut, not in favor of a tax increase. The 67 include nine votes listed twice, three listed three times, and two listed four times. The logic seems to be that if a bill contains more than one item (as almost all bills do), it counts as separate votes for or against each item. The Bush list also includes several series of sequentially numbered votes, which are procedural twists on the same bill. And there are votes on the identical issue in different years. The only actual tax increase on Bush’s list (counted twice, but hey …) is Kerry’s support for Clinton’s 1993 deficit-reduction plan. That’s the one that raised rates in the top bracket and led to a decade of such fabulous prosperity that even its most affluent victims ended up better off.

The best way to see the absurdity of saying that John Kerry voted for higher taxes 350 times is to apply Bush’s madcap logic to Bush himself. Every year, in the president’s budget, there is a table called “Effect of Proposals on Receipts.” It lists the president’s proposed changes in the tax rules and how they will affect government revenues for various periods up to 15 years. Most of Bush’s proposals will cost revenues, obviously. But in the four fiscal years 2002-2005, Bush has proposed 63 actual “revenue enhancers,” as his father used to call them. This doesn’t include, as Bush includes for Kerry, his opposition to any tax cuts (and there have been some, such as Democratic proposals to reduce the payroll tax). Nor does the list seem to include any “supply-side” revenue enhancement by magic or growth. These are actual proposals to take more money out of people’s pockets and give it to the government.

At Bush’s current rate of 16 “tax increases” a year, he’d have 320 under his belt if he could stay in the White House for 20 years. Depending on how you figure—but without wandering beyond Bush himself into the jungles of absurd logic—this is as many as eight times the number that Bush has managed to pin on Kerry. But isn’t it unfair to call, for example, more efficient administration at the IRS a tax increase? And isn’t it simply ridiculous to suggest that George W. Bush is more complacent about higher taxes than John Kerry? Yes, it’s unfair. It’s ridiculous. That’s the point.