Ever since Barack Obama declared his candidacy for president, it’s been easy — and great fun — to spotlight when his promises and statements come with “expiration dates.” The list is long: Public financing. Renegotiating NAFTA. His promise to support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies. His inability to disown Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The release of detainee photos. Denouncing Turkey for genocide.
Flip-flops are nothing new in politics, but every once in a while, a president breaks a promise or an important pledge on such an epic level that it defines him, at least in part: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “We did not — repeat — did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages — nor will we.” Even “I will never lie to you.”
Barack Obama’s sudden about-face on taxing employer-provided health insurance deserves to rank among these classics. Not because it’s as laughable as Bill Clinton’s, or as emphatic as George H. W. Bush’s, but because it takes a certain moral venality to casually adopt, as president, a position that was a dominant theme of your argument for why your opponent should not be president.
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign spent $44 million on 16 different television ads hammering John McCain on this idea, according to research by Evan L. Tracey, founder and president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a TNS Media Intelligence company.
“This message was a central theme and a significant percentage of the Obama campaign’s advertising in 2008,” Tracey said. His organization estimated last November that Obama’s campaign spent $250 million on television advertising, meaning that about 17 percent of all of Obama’s ads were denouncing McCain for this proposal.
The ads left no wiggle room:
Announcer: John McCain on health care.
John McCain: “I want to give every American a 5,000-dollar refundable tax credit.”
Announcer: Here’s the truth.
Barack Obama: “He says that he’s going to give you a 5,000-dollar tax credit. What he doesn’t tell you is that he is going to tax your employer-based health-care benefits for the first time ever. So what one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away.”
Announcer: John McCain. Instead of fixing health care, he wants to tax it.
Barack Obama: I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.
Sometimes the ads keyed the issue to a particular swing state:
Announcer: In Nevada, we work hard, and many of us get health insurance through our jobs. John McCain’s health plan would tax our health benefits as income. Taxing health benefits for the first time ever, meaning higher taxes for us. Under McCain, insurance companies prosper. Nevadans pay. Taxing our health-care benefits. An idea we should send back to Arizona. John McCain doesn’t get Nevada. He doesn’t get us.
Barack Obama: “I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.”
Obama won Nevada, 55 percent to 43 percent, a dramatic improvement on John Kerry’s 47.9 percent four years earlier.
The back-and-forth on the proposal in the vice-presidential debate provided the visuals and audio for another ad:
[Text]: McCain’s health plan. What she said.
Sarah Palin: “He’s proposing a 5,000-dollar tax credit for families so that they can get out there, and they can purchase their own health-care coverage.”
[Text]: What she didn’t say.
Joe Biden: “Well, you know how John McCain pays for his 5,000-dollar tax credit? He taxes as income every one of you out there, every one of you listening who has a health-care plan through your employer. Taxing your health-care benefit. I call that the ultimate Bridge to Nowhere.”
[Text]: Taxing health benefits for the first time ever.
Gwen Ifill: “Thank you, Senator.”
[Text]: The McCain health tax. What they can’t explain.
Barack Obama: “I’m Barack Obama, and I approve this message.”
Of course, it wasn’t just ads. Obama hammered the point again and again in his stump speech. On September 12, 2008, while appearing in Dover, N.H., Obama said:
And I can make a firm pledge: under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 will see their taxes increase — not your income taxes, not your payroll taxes, not your capital-gains taxes, not any of your taxes. My opponent can’t make that pledge, and here’s why: For the first time in American history, he wants to tax your health benefits. Apparently, Senator McCain doesn’t think it’s enough that your health premiums have doubled, he thinks you should have to pay taxes on them too. That’s a $3.6 trillion tax increase on middle-class families. That will eventually leave tens of millions of you paying higher taxes. That’s his idea of change.
Notice there’s no mention of income level, or certain limited circumstances in which it would be acceptable to tax health benefits. No suggestion that the proposal might be something he would accept a compromise on. No ifs, no ands, no buts.
In early October he went even further, calling McCain’s plan “so radical, so out of touch with what you’re facing, and so out of line with our basic values.”
On Capitol Hill, however, Democrats have long liked the idea as a new form of tax revenue. Obama’s relentless denunciation of the proposal would seem to preclude his signing it into law, but “would seem to” is not “does.” Back in March, White House budget director Peter Orszag said taxing employer benefits was among several ideas that “most firmly should remain on the table,” and some congressional Democrats told the Washington Post that White House officials said Obama would accept such a tax “as long as he didn’t have to propose it himself.”
Finally, during Wednesday’s p.r. push for his health-care plan, Obama refused to rule out the proposal that he once said made John McCain unfit for office.
“I don’t want to prejudge what they’re doing,” he said about Senate proposals to tax workers who get expensive insurance policies. “I have identified the ways that I think we should finance this. I think Congress should adopt them. I’m going to wait and see what ideas ultimately they come up with.”
Poof! What was once “so radical, so out of touch with what you’re facing, and so out of line with our basic values” now is not worthy of prejudgment.
Where does John McCain get his reputation back? And if Obama will do an about-face on this issue, is there any promise he’s made that is not approaching an inevitable expiration date?
– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.