President Obama got some unsolicited advice recently on the wisdom of telling Americans you want to raise their taxes while asking for their votes. It was from an expert on the topic—former Vice President Walter Mondale, who used an op-ed in The Washington Post to tell Obama to go for it.
Mondale, now 83, famously used his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 to boast that he would raise taxes if he beat the incumbent, Ronald Reagan. “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”
In his memoirs, Mondale said he made that pledge in part because “I would feel better about myself because I was telling the truth” and in part because “people were having trouble seeing me as a leader.” He wrote, “I thought that if I stood up and actually cut through the propaganda and gave hard answers, people would say, This kind of honesty represents leadership.”
Instead, it was one of the factors that represented defeat. A big defeat. A losing-49-states defeat.
But almost three decades later, Mondale feels fully vindicated by the growth of the deficit he warned about. And he uses his op-ed to praise Obama for the president’s speech last week in which he once again called for the wealthiest Americans to pay more in taxes.
With the op-ed, Mondale is offering his own answer to those who have asked if Mondale’s electoral fate will befall Obama and to the potential Republican candidates, all of whom have taken as an article of faith that the tax issue is their silver bullet against tax-raising Democrats.
The truth is that Mondale would have lost to Reagan in 1984 even if he had named supply-side guru Arthur Laffer as his running mate. Presidents with 60 percent approval ratings do not lose reelection in times of prosperity. But the Mondale tax pledge has dogged all Democrats ever since. It was the main reason Bill Clinton made a middle-class tax cut the centerpiece of his 1992 campaign.
Obama is the first Democrat since Mondale to so openly espouse a tax increase. And Mondale used his op-ed to argue that is both good policy and good politics.
“I told the truth in 1984,” boasted Mondale, adding, “I lost the election, but I won the debate. Reagan ended up increasing taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987 to mend the budget and tax system.”
For Obama, he wrote, “It makes sense to seize today’s bipartisan support for cutting tax exemptions as a way to increase revenue. I also believe that we must eliminate [George W.] Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. Where is the decency in cutting taxes for those making tens of millions while middle America struggles? This is a fight over fairness that Americans can understand.”
He warned against claims made by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other Republicans that today’s taxes are high. “Tax rates are at their lowest in decades, and revenue has fallen to a 40-year low as a percentage of our gross domestic product, according to the Congressional Budget Office,” he wrote.
He said both Republican and Democratic presidents have learned that any serious attack on the deficit must “include tax increases in the mix.” For that recognition, he praised the president’s speech last week as “a moment of truth in American politics.”
Republicans firmly believe that the only “truth” here is that Obama has made it easier for them to beat him. Who is right will not be known for another 19 months until voters get their chance to weigh in.