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Liberals, Pragmatists, and Taxes

A week ago, David Brooks revealed a “vision” that would vindicate his belief in Barack Obama as a “pragmatist”: a State of the Union address proposing comprehensive tax reform to “lower rates and make the tax code fair,” eliminating loopholes and special-interest provisions. Today the lead article in the New York Times reports that Obama is “considering whether to push early next year for an overhaul of the income tax code to lower rates and raise revenues.” As Abe notes, Obama is learning economics in spite of himself.

It was not so long ago that Obama thought higher tax rates were essential for fairness — to help spread the wealth. In his 2008 colloquy with Charlie Gibson, Obama supported doubling tax rates on capital gains even if that generated less revenue — “for purposes of fairness.” A few days ago, Obama was angry about the inability to impose higher tax rates next year; he promised to try again in two years. If Brooks’s vision proves true, it will be one of the fastest transformations of a politician from doctrinaire liberal to pragmatic tax-cutter.

Two days ago, William Galston emphasized the pragmatism more directly in a New Republic post entitled “The Only Way Obama Can Win in 2012.” Galston urged Obama to move “comprehensive tax reform to the center of his agenda” with a State of the Union speech proposing a broadened tax base and reduced rates, making the system simpler and fairer. In his column today, Brooks has a new label for Obama: “network liberal” — a liberal willing to network with non-liberals to do things such as this week’s tax deal. Brooks urges Obama to bring a “networking style” to reforming the tax code.

There is a great networking opportunity right in front of Obama: Mike Pence’s flat tax proposal. It is a progressive tax with a large standard deduction and dependent exemptions for low- and middle-income taxpayers: after that, “the more money you make, the more you pay.” The tax would be “fair, simple and effective;” and you could tweet tax returns.

Perhaps a pragmatist is simply a liberal who has been shellacked by reality and wants to network. We’ll see.



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