Staring Down the High Tax, Big Government Bogeyman

In prepping for my Fox News appearance this morning, I thought a lot about that old conservative bogeyman of "tax and spend liberal,"  and the current attacks on Obama for being for high taxes and big government.  I've always thought that one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century conservative movement was to reduce the conversation about our economic future into a purely fiscal discussion, about tax cuts and size of government talk - as if there was no difference between the two.  For in ideological terms, the right has believed that tax cuts and smaller government create growth, high taxes and big government stifle it.  But is this true?


The Clinton Presidency - Raised taxes, size of government shrunk, deficits became surpluses, growth exploded, incomes went up. 

The George W Bush Presidency - Cut taxes, size of government exploded, debt and deficits went to historic levels, most challenging recession in 70 years, incomes dropped. 

Oops.  Guess the conservative bromide of big taxes and big government is just that, a terrible and inaccurate bromide.  The economy is a little more complicated than it first appears, I guess.

Of the many things all this means is that Democrats should not give into arguments and statements which however attractive they may sound are untrue.  My own read of the polls is that people don't want the economic conversation to be reduced to a fiscal one.  They want their government to have a strategy that ensures broad based prosperity first and foremost.  They understand, perhaps unlike Washington, that such a strategy must have many parts, of which taxes and spending are only a part.  The message goal here this week is for the President to stay focused on his "strategy," and explain that his strategy is big enough to actually solve the problem most feel - which is ten years of no income games.

People are willing to give the Democrats time to get the economy going, tackle the deficit, create jobs because they understand more than wealthy folks how long the economy has been bad for them, and reasonably, don't expect it to be fixed overnight.  But the American people are only going to give Democrats time if they feel that the government has a plan big enough to actually fix the economy in the years ahead.  Small bore ideas - like small tax cuts for middle class families as we saw in 2009 - aren't going to cut it.  This is not the 1990s.  The troubles with the middle class and the economy are not small - they are big, perhaps the biggest in all of American history.  Small bore initiatives - the "school uniforming" of the economy - aren't going to cut it this year.  In fact there is a strong argument that doing a series of small things may in fact be the very opposite of what is needed, and reinforce that the President and his party really don't get how tough it is out there.  

And along the way the President and his party will have to do everything they can to stare down the high tax, big government bogeyman who will be very present in the national debate this year.  People don't like taxes, but they will like governments who are unwilling or unable to do what is required for them and their families to succeed even less. 

Last week I penned a piece for Salon on the economic way forward, Crafting A Response to the Rise of the Rest.  You can find it here.