One fact in Bill Voegeli’s long post here the other day about the significance of the Ryan plan deserves dilating for a moment. Bill picks on E. J. Dionne (admittedly an easy target) for saying the alternative to Ryan is to let the Bush tax cuts expire, which will raise $3.9 trillion by the year 2020 — which approaches the neighborhood of the Ryan spending cuts. Oh, how the Left hates-hates-hates the Bush tax cuts, even more than Bush’s swagger and the Iraq War. While most liberals always call them “TheBushTaxCutsForTheRich” (one word), Bill notes that of the prospective $3.9 trillion raised from ending the Bush tax rates, $3.2 trillion (or about 80 percent) would come not from the rich but from people earning below $250,000 a year, whom Obama ostentatiously promised not to tax any higher than at present. (Of course, Obama has no doubt already air-mailed that promise to Gitmo, like so many others.) Dionne is utterly silent on this point.
Dionne’s duplicity in overlooking that the bulk of the revenue from higher taxes would come from the middle class highlights two weaknesses in the standard conservative response to liberal “tax-the-rich” demagoguery. Many conservatives lead with a defense of low rates on the “investor class” on supply-side grounds, or point out that the top 1 percent already pays close to half of all income-tax revenue. This is true on the substance but loses on style points. It’s the political equivalent of leading with Jay Leno’s chin.
I had a useful conversation about this point the other day with my old friend economist Rick Stroup down in North Carolina, and he suggested that liberals don’t really believe their rhetoric that just taxing “the rich” can actually pay for the welfare state. They know that the real money comes from the middle class, but that attacking the rich, and raising their rates, is a useful cloak for soaking the middle class, where the real money is. We shouldn’t let them get away with this, but too often do.
As Reihan pointed out nearby on Tuesday, a few liberals such as Matthew Yglesias have been honest enough to acknowledge this (“I think Obama taking all middle class taxes off the table makes something approximating Ryanism inevitable”). But it ought to be the major theme as Democrats flounder around attacking Ryan: the only alternative is massive tax increases on the middle class. Rinse and repeat. Then let’s vote.