Two Can Play

Quick, what was the greatest conservative accomplishment of the George W. Bush presidency? It wasn't Medicare Part D: that was a clever way to steal a Democratic issue and pass it in a form that was friendly to the pharmaceutical industry. It wasn't Roberts and Alito: yes, they are young and conservative, but the majority is still only 5-4. It wasn't Social Security privatization: that didn't happen. Iraq? Getting political support to invade Iraq was a major coup, but everything went downhill from there.

The answer is obvious: the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Together, they were a wish list of conservative tax policy: a reduction in the top marginal income tax rate from 39.1 percent to 35 percent; a reduction in the top rates for capital gains and dividends to 15 percent; much higher contribution limits for tax-preferred retirement accounts (meaning that if you have enough money to save, you can shield more of it from taxes); and eventual elimination of the estate tax. In total, when fully phased in, the Bush-era tax cuts sliced almost 3 percent of GDP out of federal government revenues.*

And most of that money stayed in the pockets of the wealthy. According to the Tax Policy Center, 65 percent of the dollar value of the tax cuts (in 2010, once the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were phased in) went to the top income quintile, and a staggering 20 percent — that’s tens of billions of dollars — went to the top 0.1 percent. Even if you look at the impact in percentage terms, the rich still took home more than their share: after-tax income went up by 0.7 percent for the bottom quintile, 2.5-2.6 percent for the middle three quintiles, 4.0 percent for the top quintile, and 8.2 percent for the top 0.1 percent.

Everyone knows all that already. Who cares? The point today is that President Obama can make this epic conservative victory vanish by snapping his fingers. He can say, “I promise to veto any bill that extends any of the tax cuts.” (Or, if he prefers, he can say, “I promise to veto any bill that extends any of the tax cuts, except the income tax rate reductions for the 'middle class.'”)

Why would he do such a thing? Think about where the debt ceiling negotiations are today. The House Republicans are effectively holding the financial system and the economy hostage, demanding a massive, spending-cuts-only deficit reduction package. What makes this a smart move (where “smart” is defined solely in terms of likelihood of winning, not the risk being taken) is that if they can force Obama to choose between (a) raising the debt ceiling on their terms and (b) not raising it at all, he is going to choose (a). Even if he would be better off politically letting the government default and blaming it on the Republicans, no one thinks he would actually let it happen.**

Well, Obama has a hostage, too, if he wants to use it: the Bush tax cuts. From the Republicans' position, just thinking about themselves and what they want (not about the country as a whole), are a few trillion in spending cuts over ten years — averaging something like 1.5 percent of GDP — worth giving up the greatest accomplishment of the entire conservative revolution?

Now, I'm not enough of a political strategist to know exactly how this would play out. For Obama to use the threat, he has to be willing to go through with it. That means mutual assured destruction: the Republicans insist on $3 trillion in spending cuts as the price to pay for raising the debt ceiling; Obama agrees in order to prevent default; and then Obama lets $3-4 trillion in tax cuts expire. Politically, it means being willing to argue in 2012 that letting the tax cuts expire was the right thing for the country. But that's not an impossible case. Back in 2001, every aspect of the tax cuts was unpopular, other than the fact that they were tax cuts. (See Hacker and Pierson, “Off Center”, pp. 50-51.) Alternatively, Obama could propose a bill that extends just the “middle class” tax cuts on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

As I said, I can't tell you what the political percentages are. But it seems to me there has to be some leverage here that Obama can use — if he wants to.

*In the January 2007 Budget and Economic Outlook, the total 2017 cost of extending all the tax cuts, in addition to but not including patching the AMT, was projected to be $616 billion (Table 1-5), or 2.9 percent of GDP. I chose the 2007 projection because (a) it goes out to 2017, which is when some tax cuts were scheduled to expire and (b) it is before 2008, when the tax cuts to stimulate the economy began.

**What makes it a somewhat less smart move is that, with the Senate in the hands of the Democrats, the Republicans have no clear way of forcing Obama to sign or veto their deficit reduction bill. If the two houses can't agree on a plan, Obama can avoid having to make the choice (and the end of the world will be Congress’s fault).