The New York Times: Where the Candidates Agree

October 22nd, 2012

The New York Times
By Joe Nocera
October 22, 2012


Judging by the first two presidential debates — I’m writing this on the eve of the third — there is one area where Mitt Romney and President Obama are in at least quasi agreement: the need for serious tax reform.

“I want to bring the rates down; I want to simplify the tax code; and I want to get middle-income taxpayers to have lower taxes,” said the Republican challenger during the second debate. He added that he would limit “deductions and exemptions and credits, particularly for people at the high end” — while getting us “on track for a balanced budget.”

In response, President Obama said that he, too, wanted to bring rates down for the middle class. But, he said, “in addition to some tough spending cuts, we’ve also got to make sure that the wealthy do a little bit more.”

As my old friend Jeffrey Birnbaum pointed out recently, the two men really aren’t all that far apart. Romney and the president both want to lower the corporate tax rate and get rid of numerous loopholes. (Romney, of course, has yet to say which loopholes he favors eliminating.) Romney would cap deductions and credits — which would have the effect of raising taxes on the wealthy, which the Democrats want. “The plans differ in detail,” Birnbaum wrote in a note to his clients, “but they aren’t unbridgeable.”

Birnbaum, the president of BGR Public Relations, is a former Washington journalist. As a young reporter for The Wall Street Journal, he co-wrote, with The Journal’s Alan Murray, a minor classic about government: “Showdown at Gucci Gulch,” which chronicled the arduous, multiyear effort that led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Tax reform — real tax reform that rewrites the tax code top to bottom — is so rare that it has happened only once in my lifetime. Birnbaum, however, believes that it could happen again.

Then, as now, voters were upset about the state of the tax code. Stories about millionaires paying lower rates than their assistants give people the gnawing sense that the system is unfair. Corporations that pay little or no taxes amplify that feeling.

What’s more, the need for tax reform is probably more urgent now than it was in the 1980s. Then, the deficit wasn’t nearly the problem that it is today. Now, tax reform is just about the only politically palatable way for Congress to begin the process of lowering the deficit. Lowering tax rates will give Congress and the president — whomever he turns out to be — cover for broadening the tax base, reforming entitlement spending and raising additional revenue.

Yet what struck me as I reread “Showdown at Gucci Gulch” recently is not the similarities between then and now, but the differences. For starters, we had, in Ronald Reagan, a president deeply committed to lowering tax rates — because during his days as an actor, the marginal tax rate was 90 percent. We had a senator, in Bill Bradley, who was obsessed with creating a fairer tax system and wouldn’t let go of the issue. Today, that role is played by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles — neither of whom is an elected official.

We had plenty of money sloshing around politics in the 1980s — not to mention powerful special interests — but it wasn’t close to the kind of money that is routinely tossed around today, especially after the Citizens United decision. Members of Congress and senators are more beholden to special interests than they were a quarter-century ago.

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