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A General Feeling regarding the coming elections and new president
The Mother of All Elections
By Duncan Currie
Monday, December 17, 2007
Filed under: Public , Government & Politics
2008 could be a watershed for taxes, healthcare, judges, and more, writes DUNCAN CURRIE.
“The November election, for all its drama and passion, will usher in a period of pragmatic caution rather than tub-thumping ideology,” writes Adrian Wooldridge, Washington bureau chief of The Economist magazine. He may be correct. Iraq has eroded public support for foreign intervention. The recent National Intelligence Estimate may postpone indefinitely a U.S. military strike against Iran. At home, George Bush’s debilitating failures on Social Security and immigration reform might dissuade his successor from pursuing such bold initiatives. While Democrats appear almost certain to maintain control of Congress, their post-2006 majority includes many House members from conservative-friendly swing districts. Keeping those members in office may preclude an abrupt lurch to the left on taxes and cultural issues. If a Democrat wins the presidency, he or she will be haunted by the specter of 1993-94, when Bill Clinton’s early missteps led to the Gingrich Revolution. If a Republican wins, odds are he will face a hostile legislative branch.
Add it all up, and the immediate post-Bush years might indeed be “a period of pragmatic caution” in American politics. But scratch a little deeper, and suddenly America’s 2008 election looks like a potential watershed.
Consider six big issues: taxes, healthcare, trade, judges, immigration, and climate change. All of the top GOP presidential candidates support keeping and/or expanding Bush’s tax cuts. All of the top Democratic candidates favor repealing at least a portion of those tax cuts. Either way, the tax cuts expire at the end of 2010. If they are not extended before 2011, Americans will face a massive tax increase.
Meantime, New York Democrat Charlie Rangel, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, has introduced “the mother of all tax reforms”: legislation that would raise the capital gains tax and slap a new income surtax on individuals with adjusted gross incomes of $150,000 or more and on couples earning $200,000 or more. (Rangel’s plan would also trim corporate tax rates and scrap the Alternative Minimum Tax.) “No one thinks his plan has a chance of becoming law this year,” The Wall Street Journal editorialized in late October, when Rangel unveiled the bill, “but its beauty is as a signal of Democratic intentions for 2009.” Congressional Democrats also seem eager to hike taxes on hedge funds and private equity firms, an idea backed by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards.
The political climate might suggest that the immediate post-Bush years will be 'a period of pragmatic caution.' But scratch beneath the surface, and suddenly America’s 2008 election looks like a potential watershed.Among the top Republican presidential contenders, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have called for slashing income and corporate taxes, while Fred Thompson wants to implement a “voluntary” flat tax and the quixotic Mike Huckabee hopes to abolish federal income taxes, close the IRS, and move toward a national sales tax. The partisan gap here is enormous.
The same is true on healthcare. Thanks to skyrocketing costs, the drawbacks of an employer-based system, and concerns about the millions of uninsured, this issue ranks among Americans’ chief domestic priorities. Though each candidate’s plan is different, the leading Democrats generally want to expand government management and regulation of the health industry, while the leading Republicans are advocating free-market tax and insurance reforms designed to promote consumer-driven care. For example, John McCain would establish a refundable tax credit for Americans who buy their own health insurance, and he’d let them purchase their health insurance policies across state lines. Such ideas don’t cut much ice with the current Democratic Congress.
But the demands for reform are reaching a fever pitch. Though polls indicate that most Americans are satisfied with their own health plans, they seem worried about spiraling costs and troubled by the inability of the U.S. system to ensure universal coverage. Unlike in past years, Republicans are slowly coalescing around a series of ambitious free-market proposals (more ambitious, in their own way, than what the Democrats are proposing). But if Democrats regain the White House while maintaining control of Congress, expect a renewed push for inflating the federal government’s role in directing American healthcare.
On trade, the Democrats sound increasingly protectionist. They are delaying the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and appear likely to scuttle FTAs with Colombia and South Korea. Though her husband championed NAFTA and the Uruguay Round of global trade talks, Senator Clinton voted against free trade with Central America, declared her opposition to the Colombia and South Korea deals, called for a broader “timeout” on new FTAs, and warned about the “slow erosion” of America’s “economic sovereignty.” Like many other Democrats, she has supported punitive legislation to compel a change in Chinese economic policy.
Though Republicans have also backtracked a bit on free trade, they remain largely supportive of trade liberalization and opening U.S. markets to foreign goods. The outcome in 2008 could determine how hard America presses for a successful completion of the Doha Round of trade negotiations. If Democrats retake the White House and hold Congress, it may mean fewer bilateral FTAs and a frostier economic relationship with Beijing. At a time when trade diplomacy is inextricably tied to U.S. geopolitical interests in Latin America and East Asia, these would not be trivial consequences.
In these ways and more, the 2008 ballot may turn out to be “the mother of all elections.” The next president will probably get to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice. This could solidify a five-vote conservative majority—or it could preserve the status quo, with four conservatives, four liberals, and the unpredictable Anthony Kennedy breaking ties. Appointments to the lower courts will also be important. On immigration, Democrats might be wary of supporting a Bush-like plan that included a de facto “amnesty” for undocumented workers—or they might view “comprehensive immigration reform” as a means to swell their electoral advantage among Hispanics, whose significance to the Democratic Party will only grow over the coming decades. On global warming, Republicans generally remain reluctant to endorse a large-scale intervention in the U.S. economy to curb carbon emissions. Democrats, meanwhile, are gung-ho on the idea of slashing emissions through an elaborate cap-and-trade scheme. Under a Democratic president, they may get their wish. Bush’s successor might even sign a new international climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
This list is hardly exhaustive. For instance, I have left aside issues related to terrorism and homeland security, on which the gulf between Republicans and Democrats is by now rather obvious. I have also omitted issues of war and peace, which will not go away when Bush returns to Texas. The security situation in Iraq has improved immensely, but the future pace of political reconciliation is unknowable. As for Social Security, it remains a looming problem that few Democrats or Republicans (save Fred Thompson and some others) have addressed forthrightly.
It is easy to get bored or frustrated with the presidential campaign, which has not inspired confidence in either party. But make no mistake: the 2008 election is a big one. Whether or not it ushers in an era of “tub-thumping ideology,” it could profoundly alter the landscape on taxes, healthcare, and much else.
Duncan Currie is managing editor of THE AMERICAN.
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