On John Kerry and Framing the Tax Argument

By James Fallows

On Sunday I mentioned that John Kerry had given other Democrats a lesson in how to stand up against the Republicans' insistence on bonus tax cuts for people in the top 2 percent of the income distribution. For another Democrat who figured out how to make the case, see this earlier item, about White House economist Austin Goolsbee, with his visual-mnemonic device. (That's a static screen shot; playable video of Goolsbee is here.)

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Now it appears that Kerry's (and Goolsbee's) eloquent hardline was for naught. I can't pretend to assess fully the impending deal on tax cuts at the moment. But here are several reader messages about the general question of framing the discussion.

First, from a reader who thought I was putting Kerry down when I said that the effective presentation had come from "John Kerry, no less." I'm not sure what I meant by that, but here's the reader's point:

>>Kerry's reputation as an uninspiring speaker is undeserved. From the time he first gained national prominence, I have been enormously impressed by his ability to frame issues and forcefully advocate sensible liberal positions (not an oxymoron!). He's also an entertaining speaker with a wry sense of humor. Even his famous remark about voting for the $87 billion before he voted against it, which probably cost him the presidency, represented only 5 seconds of a 2-minute remark that actually made an excellent point when played in full.

That said, I too am guilty of piling on, at least indirectly: whenever I am trying to explain to someone why I can't stand Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, I say that their pompous style reminds me of what a broadcast would be like if John Kerry were calling play-by-play. But of course I'm only talking about the caricature, not the real John Kerry. <<

For the record, I have written at length about Kerry's rhetorical skills, in this 2004 cover story. After the jump, two other suggestions about how the Democrats could/should have framed the discussion. I guess worth reading as prep notes for 2012.

A reader writes:

>>You are dead right about how to politically frame and market the tax issue for the Democratic Party. However, to my mind, the question becomes will anyone in a leadership position, "GET IT". So far they haven't, and Health care reform is the best example where they allowed the R's to define reform in the most inaccurate, false and completely distorted terms.

I believe Democratic Party leadership (increasing an oxymoron) should make their case as you suggest, and then hold the line. As a longtime progressive I'm "sick and tired" of Democratic capitulation to a Republican minority which I see as holding the country hostage to their thoughtless and destructive notions of economic, tax, monetary policy, and how could I omit - social policy. Sadly, at this point I increasingly see President Obama as weak and matched by an equally feckless and unsupportive Democratic Senate. They are like a sea of shallow mediocrity where risk aversion seems to be the order of the day. Where is a TR/FDR/ HST/JFK/LBJ when the country needs them? Instead we have the voices of intolerance, arrogance,self-righteousness, and selfishness being the order of the day. There are more days than not when I feel transported back to my grade school playground and cafeteria.Or am I really in the upside down world created by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland with the Mad Hatter in charge of the Tea Party?<<

And from another:

 >>It's fun to role play Congress and the President.  If the Democratic caucus in the Senate wasn't so fractured as to not to be able to coalesce even 50 votes around one strategy, Democrats could easily win this one by brinksmanship:
(1) Wait a week or so and only allow votes on Obama's plan
(2) Announce a compromise proposal that doesn't raise taxes at all:
(3) Keep Bush rates for <$1M (Schumer compromise)
(4) Take the first 3 years of projected revenue from the higher rates and have it refunded to every tax payer via a one-time payroll tax cut for 2011.
(5) Dedicate the out-year revenue to deficit reduction

This only leaves proponents of extending the cuts entirely with cries of "class warfare."  This won't work.  They'll argue that it's really a tax increase because taxes will go up in three years, but that's too nuanced to gain any traction.  They can't complain about this increasing the size of government because the revenue's earmarked for deficit reduction.  Democrats will point to an immediate stimulus that's exactly what the GOP asked for.

Are the GOP, Ben Nelson, et al prepared to have the Christmas news vacuum filled entirely with stories of fruitless filibusters in an emergency session?  News stories along the lines of "Filibuster blocks Dem tax plan; rates to increase on January 1st" don't sound so hot.<<

We'll never know how that would have turned out.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/12/on-john-kerry-and-framing-the-tax-argument/67602/