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A time when politicians tried to coax ‘the opposition’ to their view

by Matt Mitchell on February 28, 2013

in Culture

Rostenkowski,danOn May 28, 1986, Ronald Reagan delivered an Oval Office speech calling for tax reform: a revenue-neutral plan to reduce marginal tax rates and close scores of loopholes that privileged particular firms, industries, and individuals. The Great Communicator lived up to his reputation, delivering a flawless speech that somehow managed to evoke lofty images (“Two centuries later, a second American revolution for hope and opportunity is gathering force again”) and yet grounded these images in relatable prose (“No other issue will have more lasting impact on the well-being of your families and your future.”)

Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill asked Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski to deliver the Democratic response. The choice was controversial. Over the previous five years, the Democrats had flopped in just about every one of their responses to the president. Rostenkowski, famous for his mumbled delivery and mixed metaphors, seemed unlikely to do any better. Here is what the congressman said:

Good evening, I’m Dan Rostenkowski from Chicago. Let me read you something that pretty well explains what tax reform is all about, and what Democrats are all about.

[Reading from a book] “The continued escape of privileged groups from taxation violates the fundamental democratic principle of fair treatment for all and undermines public confidence in the tax system.” That was Harry Truman’s message to Congress thirty-five years ago.

Trying to tax people fairly: That’s been the historic Democratic commitment. Our roots lie with working families all over the country, like the Polish neighborhood I grew up in on the northwest side of Chicago. Most of the people in my neighborhood worked hard in breweries, steel mills, packing houses; proud families who lived on their salaries. My parents and grandparents didn’t like to pay taxes. Who does? But like most Americans they were willing to pay their fair share as the price for a free country where everyone could make their own breaks.

Every year politicians promise to make the tax code fair and simple, but every year we seem to slip further behind. Now most of us pay taxes with bitterness and frustration. Working families file their tax forms with the nagging feeling that they’re the biggest suckers and chumps in the world. Their taxes are withheld at work, while the elite have enormous freedom to move their income from one tax shelter to another. That bitterness is about to boil over. And it’s time it did.

But this time there’s a difference in the push for tax reform. This time, it’s a Republican president who’s bucking his party’s tradition as protectors of big business and the wealthy. His words and feelings go back to Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy. But the commitment comes from Ronald Reagan and that’s so important and so welcome.

Because, if the president’s plan is everything he says it is, he’ll have a great deal of Democratic support. That’s the real difference this time. A Republican president has joined the Democrats in Congress to try to redeem this long-standing commitment to a tax system that’s simple and fair. If we work together with good faith and determination, this time the people may win. This time I really think we can get tax reform.

Then, he asked the audience to send letters of support:

Even if you can’t spell Rostenkowski, put down what they used to call my father and grandfather—Rosty. Just address it to R-0-S-T-Y, Washington, D.C. The post office will get it to me. Better yet, write your representative and your senator. And stand up for fairness and lower taxes.

This account comes from Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray’s classic history of the 1986 tax reform, Showdown at Gucci Gulch. They write:

When the speech was over, and the microphones were turned off, the camera crew did something Rothstein [Rostenkowski’s media consultant] had not seen before: they broke into applause. “That was my first clue we hit it over the fence,” Rothstein says.

The second clue was an ecstatic call from the White House. The third was the incredible response from the American people who deluged Washington with more than seventy-five thousand supportive letters addressed to “Rosty.”

I’m not one for nostalgia. I think many humans have a tendency to look at history through sepia-colored glasses that idealize our own political and cultural past.

But it is hard to read Rostenkowski’s speech without seeing the glaring contrast with today’s political rhetoric. The speech is still partisan in a way: He makes it seem as if Democrats had always wanted a simpler and fairer code and he congratulates Reagan for coming around to their view. This is, of course, ahistorical as both parties were at fault for a tax code riddled with loopholes. But the whole thrust of the speech seems designed to make the other side feel safe about moving towards Rostenkowski’s position.

As an economist, I’m accustomed to thinking about human interaction as exchange: when two people meet, there is almost always an opportunity for mutually beneficial exchange (though transactions costs mean that many of these opportunities are unrealized). And the more different these people are in their tastes and in their productive abilities, the greater the opportunity for exchange.

It is interesting that more politicians don’t see their task as one of getting “the other side” to feel comfortable about abandoning its position and moving toward the middle. Instead, politicians seem to increasingly address themselves to their own base. Unfortunately, what draws the base in often pushes the other side away.

In a follow-up post, I’ll address some possible explanations for this.

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