No Lip Service: Dems Trade Higher Taxes for Social Programs

The Democratic presidential candidates want to raise your taxes.

Most of them aren't exactly advertising that fact when they talk about their plans for health care, the environment and education. But for a party that has long feared political fallout when talking about taxes, the Democrats' 2008 crop of presidential contenders is showing remarkable frankness in talking about the need for additional revenues to fund their priorities.

Sen, Barack Obama, D-Ill., became the latest candidate to call for higher taxes Tuesday, when he unveiled his plan for universal health coverage. He is calling for the tax cuts pushed by President Bush to expire in 2010 for upper-income earners -- an effective tax hike for more than 1 million taxpayers -- and is proposing a new tax on small businesses that don't provide health care to their employees.

"We now face an opportunity -- and an obligation -- to turn the page on the failed politics of yesterday's health care debates," Obama said in unveiling his health care plan in Iowa. "To help pay for this, we will ask all but the smallest businesses who don't make a meaningful contribution today to the health coverage of their employees to do so by supporting this new plan. And we will allow the temporary Bush tax cut for the wealthiest Americans to expire."

Obama joins former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards in calling for higher taxes to help fix the nation's health care woes. Edwards wants to roll back the Bush tax cuts for Americans making more than $200,000 a year, and said he would also consider raising capital gains rates and Social Security taxes.

In addition, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., is proposing a "carbon tax" that would be assessed on businesses based on how much pollution they generate, with the money to be funneled into a trust fund for renewable energy technologies. Though individuals would not be assessed any new taxes, businesses would almost certainly pass on some of their costs to consumers, leaving Americans indirectly paying new taxes.

"Taxes are becoming part of the debate," said Leonard Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center and a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a liberal policy group. "You know they're going to be attacked for it. But people still want government to do things for them, and the question is whether the candidates can convince people that this is something that's worthwhile for them."

Campaign vows of higher taxes have been essentially off-limits for Democratic presidential candidates since 1984, when Democratic nominee Walter Mondale hurt his chances against President Reagan with a famous line at the Democratic National Convention that was widely interpreted as a pledge of higher taxes.

"Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did," Mondale said.

While presidential candidates, including Bill Clinton in 1992 and John Kerry in 2004, occasionally talked about paying for their priorities with higher taxes, they carefully calibrated their proposals with populist rhetoric about making the wealthy pay their fair share.

Even so, in 2004, President Bush hammered Kerry for saying he would roll back tax cuts for the rich, in a stark display of the political peril surrounding any discussion of higher taxes.

"Tax the rich -- you know what that means? They dodge, you pay," Bush said in a typical campaign refrain, part of his campaign to brand Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal.

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