The following was published in the Wall Street Journal on March 29, 2012.
A cardinal rule of American campaigns is that candidates must appeal to the party base during primary elections and then move to the center to win moderates and independents in November. This year, on the issues of taxes and spending, that shift can't come soon enough—and not just for the Republican nominee.
Over the past year, as the candidates jockeying for the Republican nomination raced to the right, the Obama campaign has sought to re-energize its base by tacking left. The president not only embraced the frustration expressed by Occupy Wall Street protesters—which was real—but he adopted their economic populism.
Central to fixing the country's problems, he has argued, is making the wealthiest Americans pay their "fair share," even though the top 5% already pay 59% of all federal income taxes, while 42% of filers have no federal income tax bill at all (or got a check from the government via the earned-income tax credit). Warren Buffett's secretary became the public symbol of this strategy, even appearing at the president's State of the Union address. (Mr. Buffett, of course, did exactly what lower capital gains taxes are designed to encourage: He invested!)
I don't believe in class warfare, and not because I don't want to pay more in taxes. I think the Bush tax cuts should expire for all Americans—you, me, everyone—as part of a long-term plan to rein in the deficit. We are all in this together. Pitting one group against another not only divides us in counterproductive ways but offers one group the false promise of something for nothing.
That's exactly what got our country into this mess in the first place. Mortgages were approved with no money down for borrowers with no income and no assets. Meanwhile, the federal government was running up huge deficits during a period of economic growth and telling the American people not to worry about the bill. Even today, four years later, none of the major candidates for president has developed a plan for paying the bill. Instead, all are still offering something for nothing.
The president asserts that 98% of Americans do not need to pay more in taxes, that we just need those earning more than $1 million to pay a minimum of 30% in federal income taxes. But according to Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation, this plan would generate only $1.1 billion in revenue for the coming fiscal year. To put that in perspective, the federal government this year is spending $1.2 trillion more than it is taking in.
Whether you support it or not, the president's tax plan is a political strategy, not an economic one. It will have virtually no bearing on the federal deficit or our ability to finance current spending levels.
The Republican presidential candidates have unveiled tax plans that are just as divorced from reality. They say they'll make the Bush tax cuts permanent while also eliminating the deficit. If you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you. Republicans who emphasize economic freedom would have a lot more credibility if they'd stop promising a free lunch. Any candidate who says we can cut taxes and balance the budget is either delusional or dissembling.
Both parties' candidates are also promising major reductions in spending. But there's one small catch: They don't have the courage to tell the public which programs they'll cut, and how they'll reduce entitlement spending, to balance the budget.
This is a problem not just for voters but for businesses. Nearly every CEO and business leader I speak with says virtually the same thing: They are hesitant to make major investment decisions until they know how Washington intends to grapple with its huge deficits. That uncertainty is a major drag on job creation because the price of uncertainty for business is paralysis. Companies with healthy balance sheets that could be creating jobs are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see if the federal government will begin increasing market stability by reducing long-term deficits.
If the federal government passed a real deficit-reduction plan, business leaders would respond as they did in the 1990s, when President Clinton and Congress adopted a long-term deficit-reduction plan that gave businesses more certainty about the market. A serious deficit-reduction plan that both increases revenues and reduces expenditures would be the most effective economic stimulus plan Washington could adopt.
As the two parties sketch out their general-election campaign platforms, both should commit to a reasonable and responsible goal—closing the deficit in 10 years. Even given Washington's current dysfunction, this can be achieved through a simple two-step process: The president can declare that he will allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for all income levels, and Congress can take an up-or-down vote on the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, as a bipartisan group of House centrists will propose this week. That plan calls for $4 trillion in savings by capping discretionary spending, slowing the growth of entitlement costs including Social Security, and raising revenue through tax reform.
I believe there is enough support in both parties and both houses to pass Simpson-Bowles. And the American people deserve to know, before the November election, where their representatives—and the candidates for president—stand on it.
The era of something for nothing must end if we are to get our country back on track. The nominee who is more willing to tell that truth to the American people will win the election.