We will not be able to control our budget deficits without raising taxes. That simple reality has brought us to a moment of truth in American politics. President Obama’s speech Wednesday lived up to that moment, and now Democrats and Republicans in Congress must take a similar stand.
Many have described my 1984 presidential campaign promise to raise taxes as exemplifying the folly of proposing tax hikes during an election. Although the rebounding economy and improving job picture that year probably had more to do with President Ronald Reagan’s reelection than my pledge did, there are certainly political lessons for anyone considering tax increases today. In particular, avoid generalities, and clearly link taxes to addressing concrete national needs.
Taxes reveal who we are as a people and what we value. Polls consistently show that majorities of Americans are willing to pay taxes and even have them increased when the revenues are devoted to their priorities, such as education, health care and deficit reduction. The public’s support is greatest for raising taxes on the affluent, but it extends to hikes tied to popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Moreover, Americans are not fans of tax cuts when pitted against other priorities..
I told the truth in 1984. “The American people will have to pay Mr. Reagan’s bills,” I said in my acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. “The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. . . . It must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” 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 systems.
Elections since 1984 have demonstrated that favoring higher taxes to pay for specific priorities can be a winning political formula. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both prevailed with well-executed and honest proposals to raise taxes for concrete purposes that Americans favored. ...
Today, we need Republicans and Democrats to return to that tradition of putting country ahead of politics — to agree to tax increases as part of a package that would also cut spending and reform entitlements in ways that control long-term costs and protect those who depend on them. This is what we have done in the past, and it is what we must do to secure America’s future.