Commentary

Refrains from One Songbook

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on January 25, 2004.
I never understood what Alan Greenspan meant by “irrational exuberance” until I saw Howard Dean’s reaction to getting 18 percent of the Iowa vote. A spokesman for another candidate who fared poorly griped that the winners “stole our message.” That would not be hard to do, since they are all saying the same thing.

Some say it seriously (John Kerry), some with a growl (Howard Dean) and some with a smile (John Edwards). But they share sound bites and offer the same solution to every problem — much higher tax rates on success and savings.

All Democratic candidates feel obliged to declare they are “fighting for working families.” What does that mean? Are they disinterested in the retired, unmarried or unemployed? And what is a working family, anyway? Mature college-educated, two-earner married couples in major metropolitan areas are likely to have combined incomes above $100,000. That clearly disqualifies them as “working families” in the Democrats’ lexicon. In fact, a related campaign theme is that such people don’t “need” what they earn, so they can never be taxed enough.

Every candidate claims to speak for “ordinary people.” Never mind that Mr. Kerry is an affluent Boston aristocrat married to an heiress, Mr. Dean was an affluent Park Avenue patrician, Mr. Clark was a top-ranking general, and Mr. Edwards a famous trial lawyer. Rolling up your sleeves is considered evidence enough of being just an ordinary fellow.

Every candidate promises to “take back the government from the special interests.” Yet Mr. Dean was eager for endorsements from government employee unions, and Mr. Edwards is eager for contributions from trial lawyers. They run against “the establishment,” yet boast of endorsements from establishment figureheads.

Nearly every candidate promises perfection in nearly everything. Elect me, they say, and every sick person will have access to the world’s best physician. Every student will study with the world’s best professor. Those who worked for pets.com will get their old jobs back. Nobody will every again be even slightly hungry, and the national obesity crisis will end.

John Edwards stops just short of guaranteeing it will rain only at night. But overpromising is a bipartisan affliction, illustrated by the cliche that no child, regardless how lazy and ill-behaved, will ever be “left behind.”

A year ago, President Bush set himself the impossible task of promising employment for “every man and woman who seeks a job.” Zero unemployment means everyone who quit a job would instantly find another. Those with wildly exaggerated views of their own qualifications would instantly find ideal jobs in perfect places with appropriately lavish salaries and perks.

When we move beyond these grandiose themes, the top two items on Democratic candidates’ agendas are negative and backward-looking, as though politicians could undo past events. The Washington Post considered it news that President Bush “did not discuss two of the most common Democratic criticisms: the more than 500 soldiers killed in Iraq and the 2.3 million jobs that have been shed by the economy during his term.”

Opposition to the Iraq war is about as useful as opposing the wars in Vietnam and Korea. The serious question, then and now, is how to make a graceful exit. U.S. troops never did leave Korea, and the strategy for a partial retreat was to leave thugs in North Korean for this generation to worry about. President Nixon was initially thought to have had a “secret strategy” for getting out of Vietnam, but this turned out to be a few more years of bombing followed by an ignoble retreat. If any Democratic candidate has a secret plan for getting out of Iraq, it might be helpful to share the secret.

The second most boring Democratic complaint is that the economy has not yet recovered all the jobs lost since the previous cyclical peak. This seems designed to deceive voters into imagining the recession was somehow caused by tax cuts in 2002 and 2003, even though the stock market began crashing in April 2000 and manufacturing output and employment started shrinking three months later.

Many countries are still struggling to recover from that world recession, but the United States is not one of them. According to the household survey, 138,479,000 people said they had a job in December, up from 137,300,000 in March — an increase of nearly 1.2 million jobs in just nine months. A narrower survey of company payrolls increased by 278,000 jobs from August to December. The unemployment rate dropped from 6.3 percent in June to 5.7 percent in December.

The director of the Pew Research Center, Andrew Kohut, put together some figures for the New York Times showing conditions in the periods in which former presidents sought second terms. The unemployment rate during the final quarter of the year before the election was 5.9 percent for George W. Bush, 5.6 percent for Bill Clinton, 7.1 percent for George Bush the Elder, 8.5 percent for Ronald Reagan and 6 percent for Jimmy Carter. As many studies have shown, no measure of unemployment ever had any predictable effect on presidential elections.

Besides, the current unemployment rate is the second lowest of the seven elections Mr. Kohut examined. The percentage of Americans who think the country “is on the right track” was recently at 45 percent — far ahead of Mr. Clinton before his second term (23 percent) and ahead of any of the other would be second-termers except Mr. Reagan (51 percent). Democrats might want to reconsider their talk about “changing direction.” Changing direction sounds like turning left, but voters in other two-term elections defined “right track” as turning right.

One other thing the president’s rivals all share is an urge to raise taxes a lot. Wesley Clark, Howard Dean and Joseph Lieberman are quite explicit about taxing the stuffing out of moderately high salaries. John Edwards and Messrs. Dean and Lieberman are equally explicit about greatly increasing tax rates on dividends and capital gains.

Their arguments for abusing the tax system to penalize success and savings are the exact opposite of those John F. Kennedy once used against the high-tax policies of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration. In any electoral contest between Jack Kennedy proteges in the Republican Party and the Eisenhower-Nixon copycats who now dominate the Democratic Party, the latter will never stand a chance.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and is a nationally syndicated columnist.