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September 19, 2006

Mark Warner's Anti-Populism

If you want to know why I think the hype about Mark Warner oddly misguided, look no further than his recent comments lambasting the Kerry campaign for targeting Bush's top-bracket tax cuts as poor strategy. He takes up that favorite of chin-stroking op-ed columnists everywhere to argue that "Even though the Bush tax cuts only applied to the top 2 percent of Americans, what I think the Kerry campaign missed was that the other 98 percent of Americans still aspired to get to the point in their life."

Color me unconvinced. Not only is Warner philosophically wrong here -- I don't know what sort of Democrat believes it's supportable public policy to raid the federal treasury to enrich the wealthy -- he's not even backed up by the polling data. Support for Bush's tax cuts has, and always has, been low. they've never been as popular as one might expect. Moreover, they've become less popular as time passed. In 2000, exit polls shows that voters naming "taxes" as their top issue went for Bush 80%-17% -- it was by far his biggest advantage on any issue. In 2004, a number of those hardcore partisans were surely naming terrorism, but nevertheless, those obsessing over "taxes" were now voting a rather different ballot, favoring Bush by a mere 57%-43%, a 49% swing in Kerry's favor.

So where exactly is the evidence of all this aspirational abhorrence of populism? Polls show, and showed, massive preferences among voters for the vast majority of Democratic economic positions. Few dispute that Bush won the election on national security and social conservatism, and most of those who do dispute it simply don't think Bush won the election. So while Warner's genial rejection of class warfare may play well on the Washington Post op-ed page, there's no reason to believe it a good strategy, and lord knows it's terrible policy, particularly in an era when the federal treasury is starved for revenue and Democrats actually want to enact some social programs.

September 19, 2006 | Permalink


Perhaps the smarter political tack is to talk about constructive tax reform, within which pushing up the top rate(s) would be among the agenda items. The U-turn/top 1 percent mantra doesn't seem to have scored.

Taling about the need for more revenues is just political suicide, unless it's secondary to the spending you propose to initiate or defend with the benefit of these revenues.

There's been a lot of hype from Dems about disastrous deficits, with no sign of any actual economic damage. Because there hasn't been any, so far.

Posted by: Miracle Max | Sep 19, 2006 11:05:45 AM

"Support tax cuts for the rich because in this land of opportunity you can get rich too." is exploitative sucker bait. It's a key to getting the working class to vote the interests of the wealthy class. The rich have promoted the notion that class warfare is bad, because they don't want the rest of us to notice that their class has won the war and walked off with all the marbles. The Bush tax policy serves to concentrate wealth in the hands of the top tier. Let's not help it along by disguising its impact.

Sorry to read taht Warner is playing the Republican side of that game. Excuse me now, I have to go buy lottery tickets.

Posted by: Mickeleh | Sep 19, 2006 11:44:39 AM

"the Kerry campaign missed was that the other 98 percent of Americans still aspired to get to that point in their life."

That's why I'm putting my IRA into that MegaMillions or Powerball fund option. I just missed that $165mm by only four numbers!

Posted by: CParis | Sep 19, 2006 11:47:14 AM

Any Dem who thinks Warner has a good shot at being president is delusional.

(Niall Ferguson, in his history of the next 20-25 years, had Warner president for a term, so he's delusional too. But we already knew that.)

Posted by: JJF | Sep 19, 2006 11:52:15 AM

It seems to me that Warner is not saying the tax cuts were good, but that Kerry's method of criticizing them, which demonized the wealthy was poor.

If my reading is correct, then the entire criticisms in this post is nonsensical. Even if you disagree with Warner and consider Kerry's message to be a model of political campaigning, the 'philosophy' Ezra criticizes and the polling he sites is not relevant to that point.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Sep 19, 2006 11:59:46 AM

God, I really hate that "aspirations" argument. Not only is there no evidence for this, as Ezra points out. But put it this way: would any of the alleged millions of aspirants stop aspiring if they thought their tax rate would increase by a few percentage points once they made their inevitable fortunes?

Posted by: bobbo | Sep 19, 2006 12:18:06 PM

Ezra, I don't know what sort of Democrat "believes it's supportable public policy to raid the federal treasury to enrich the wealthy" either.
I do know that's not what Mark Warner believes. A closer reading of the Des Moines Register article shows that Warner was differing with Kerry on how to sell the Democratic fiscal package -- balanced budget, more equitable taxation, increased spending on health care, education, infrastructure investment, etc -- to a skeptical electorate. He was not supporting and does not support Bush's economic policies or tax cuts.
You also leave this quote from the Register story out of your post:

"Warner said wealthier Americans may be willing to support what would essentially be an income-tax increase, but only if it is portrayed as part of a fiscal strategy that includes trimming government waste and curbing spending."

Nor do you mention this AP story which puts the Governor's statements in context:

"It's hard for me to find a business person today and look them in the eye and describe how this administration in Washington is fiscally conservative, or how this administration in Washington can put together a reasonable balance sheet for our country," Warner said.

Warner met over breakfast with leaders of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a coalition of key business leaders that leans Republican but has occasionally been swayed by Democrats. He argued that an ideologically driven agenda in Washington doesn't make sense from a bottom-line perspective.

"I think this community understands we're in a knowledge-based economy, but we've got a crowd in Washington that rejects stem cell research, rejects global warming,' said Warner. "That doesn't move our country forward."

In fairness, you had no way of seeing this part of Warner's remarks yesterday since it that didn't make the papers (but was recorded by my fellow Forward Together PAC staffer Lars Anderson):

"With regards to the bush tax cuts, in a time of war, to give the most successful in our country a tax break is not morally right and not economically right."

Governor Warner's comments yesterday reflect his success in Virginia where he was able to enact a progressive fiscal policy -- balanced budgets, more equitable taxes (including increased taxes on the wealthiest and cuts for the majority), increased investment in healthcare, education, environment and infrastructure. He was able to enact his programs by bringing business leaders and moderate Republicans on board by first showing a committment to leaner, more efficient government.

Posted by: Texas Nate | Sep 19, 2006 1:33:19 PM

"Excuse me now, I have to go buy lottery tickets."

Mickeleh, how about we buy tickets in different states and split the cash if one of us wins? That will double our chances of moving up to the 2%!

Posted by: CParis | Sep 19, 2006 1:41:13 PM

Texas Nate, good points. I disagree with Mark Warner on a number of issues, but if he makes it through the primary (a bloodbath if Hilary doesn't run), he provides the best chance to win the general election (unless Obama decides to run). As much as I enjoy Edwards and others, they seem politically unelectable to any country that "elected" George W. Bush. As we all know, Senators have the deck stacked against them when running for President.

The last two Democratic Presidents have both been Southern governors. Warner = wildly popular governor in red state.

For the sake of the country, a centrist leader would do us well during this period of intense polarization.

Ezra, I just recently started reading your blog and find it very well-written. Which candidate do you support in '08?

Posted by: gautsid | Sep 19, 2006 2:59:58 PM

It played well on the Washington Post. I do think there is a problem of the co-optation say of the 4th quintile, and that more people can aspire to be millionaires, or multi-millionaires that ever before. $10k a year savings or investing (house) for a young couple will do it, and is not way out of line for two-income professional families.

Liberals need exactly that 10k, that is where our money will really come from. A marginal $10k from a $100-150k family.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 19, 2006 5:14:34 PM

Warner does 3 things:
1) he charms the heck out of people when he gets into a room with them
2) he has successfully governed a purple-red state, appealing to voters across the aisle, communicating *extremely* well in terms of message and political strategy and achieving policy solutions (such as raising taxes to fix a budget problem while protecting education - a rarity)
3) because of 2), he has the ability to change the electoral map for Democrats in 2008. New states come into play. Who else does this? Maybe Edwards, maybe Richardson.

Assuming that these are all true, and stay true (i.e. he doesn't uncharacteristically blow this race and make errors), Warner is an excellent candidate for President, and the skeptics above don't seem to understand these 3 points. They are real.

Posted by: Buford P. Stinkleberry | Sep 19, 2006 7:16:32 PM

Mark Warner's position, in a nutshell, is "Tax increases bad".

I'd say that's smart politics, and smart policy. There is plenty of room to cut, considering that spending has skyrocketed under Bush. As a matter of fact, if Bush had increased spending at the rate that Clinton increased spending, the deficit would be less than 1% of GDP.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Sep 21, 2006 5:27:53 PM

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