Barack Obama’s budget address last week ranks among the most dishonest and dishonorable presidential speeches in generations. It contained an avalanche of false and misleading statements. It was shallow and bitterly partisan. Yet the speech served a useful purpose: It provided the American people in general, and Republicans in particular, with the basic line of attack President Obama will use between now and the 2012 election.
The White House strategy is clear: argue that Obama wants to restore fiscal balance by raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” while those who don’t favor higher taxes on the wealthy are fundamentally unserious. As a political matter, of course, class warfare does not have a particularly successful track record. But, to keep it that way, Republicans need to provide a compelling response to the Obama strategy. Fortunately such a response exists.
Obama’s argument is built on sand. A tax increase on the wealthy would fall far short of the revenues needed to reverse our fiscal trajectory. Our budget problems are significantly worse today than they were in the 1990s. There are not nearly enough wealthy people in the nation to tax in order to tame our debt. If the president wants higher taxes to improve our fiscal imbalance, he will need to embrace a massive middle-class tax increase and/or a value added tax (VAT). But Obama hasn’t shown the slightest preference for that option. It’s pure fiction to pretend that higher taxes on those making more than $200,000 will make much of a dent in our debt, given the size of our long-term spending problem. Obama’s argument isn’t with Republicans. It’s with basic arithmetic.
Republicans need to unmask the philosophy guiding modern liberalism when it comes to taxes. What liberals are interested in isn’t growth so much as egalitarianism and redistribution for its own sake. For many on the left, increasing taxes isn’t about economics as much as morality. They believe taxing the wealthy is a virtue, to the point that they would penalize “the rich” even if that has harmful economic consequences. Recall that during a campaign debate, when asked by Charles Gibson about his support for raising capital gains taxes even if that caused a net revenue loss to the Treasury, Obama sided with tax increases “for purposes of fairness.”
Higher taxes would keep our current welfare state in place for only a little while longer. The entitlement apparatus would remain unsustainable. Tax increases might slightly delay, but could not forestall, a fiscal crack-up. The only thing that can is reconfiguring and restructuring our entitlement programs, most especially Medicare. That is what Paul Ryan’s plan does—and what President Obama’s budget avoids doing.
The point cannot be made often enough: Modern liberalism, as embodied in the Obama presidency, is the defender of the status quo. And the status quo is a road to economic ruin.
It is important for Republicans to put this debate in the right frame. Left unaddressed, our crushing burden of debt will cripple the American economy. Yet the aim of conservatism isn’t simply lower deficits and debt. It’s also limited government and a thriving society. A leviathan state is injurious because of its effect on civic character, because it undermines self-reliance and creates dependency. And this, in turn, results in an enervation of the entrepreneurial spirit that is necessary for innovation and prosperity.
Barack Obama has amassed a dismal economic record as president. (Former senator Phil Gramm points out that if Barack Obama had matched Ronald Reagan’s post-recession recovery rate, 15.7 million more Americans would have jobs.) Obama can’t campaign on his record—so he’s betting his reelection chances on stoking embers of anger and resentment. That’s about all that’s left of hope and change.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.