The art of obfuscation

    If you’d like to attend a master class in political obfuscation, look no further. Today’s instructor is Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.
    Join me in marveling at his myriad verbal pirouettes on Sunday’s Meet The Press, where he doggedly defended the principle of tax cuts for the affluent without once answering the host’s key question.

    First, a little class prep: The Bush tax cuts, enacted in 2001 and 2003, are set to expire at year’s end, and the GOP is horrified that the highest-income Americans would be compelled to dig a bit deeper into their deep pockets when their tax rates return to Clinton-era levels. Fiscal experts say that such a move is necessary – and, after all, the scheduled expiration is written into the law – because the federal government badly needs to whack the deficit with fresh revenue. If the richest Americans lose their Bush tax cuts (while 98 percent of Americans keep their cuts, as proposed by the Obama administration), tax policy wonks say that roughly $680 billion would be pumped into federal coffers over the next 10 years. That would surely help trim the deficit that Republicans constantly complain about.

    And yet, when it comes to tax cuts for the rich, McConnell and his party mates somehow don’t care a whit bout the federal deficit. They are typically averse to extending benefits for the jobless unless that money can be paid for in a way that won’t deepen the deficit, but when the issue is a tax cut extension for the rich…well, this is where we join our program in progress.

    If you’d like to attend a master class in political obfuscation, look no further. Today’s instructor is Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. Join me in marveling at his myriad verbal pirouettes on Sunday’s Meet The Press, where he doggedly defended the principle of tax cuts for the affluent without once answering the host’s key question.

    First, a little class prep: The Bush tax cuts, enacted in 2001 and 2003, are set to expire at year’s end, and the GOP is horrified that the highest-income Americans would be compelled to dig a bit deeper into their deep pockets when their tax rates return to Clinton-era levels. Fiscal experts say that such a move is necessary – and, after all, the scheduled expiration is written into the law – because the federal government badly needs to whack the deficit with fresh revenue. If the richest Americans lose their Bush tax cuts (while 98 percent of Americans keep their cuts, as proposed by the Obama administration), tax policy wonks say that roughly $680 billion would be pumped into federal coffers over the next 10 years. That would surely help trim the deficit that Republicans constantly complain about.

    And yet, when it comes to tax cuts for the rich, McConnell and his party mates somehow don’t care a whit bout the federal deficit. They are typically averse to extending benefits for the jobless unless that money can be paid for in a way that won’t deepen the deficit, but when the issue is a tax cut extension for the rich…well, this is where we join our program in progress.

    Host David Gregory said to McConnell: “You and other Republicans would like to see the Bush-era tax cuts extended. The president, of course, wants to repeal them except for those on the wealthiest Americans; in other words, those taxes would go up. What are you prepared to do to pay, for an extension of tax cuts for everybody?”

    McConnell: “This has been tax law in, in America for almost 10 years now, existing tax law. What the administration is proposing, and the majorities in the House and Senate, is to raise taxes on the top two brackets, which will affect 50 percent of small business income…”

    Note how McConnell eluded the question; he never said how he ‘d pay for the high-income tax cuts. He dodged by changing the subject. His first dodge was irrelevant (yes, it’s been tax law for nearly a decade, but he failed to mention that the law was always set to expire at the end of ’10), and his second dodge – about the impact on small business – was demonstrably false. Republicans have been claiming for weeks that tax hikes on the rich would hit “50 percent” of small business income; however, in the empirical world, tax experts have long pointed out that, at most, only three percent of small-business taxpayers are in the rich income brackets.

    Anyway, Gregory tried to follow up: “But my question is, how do you pay for an extension of tax cuts? Because if you’re concerned, as Republicans say they are, about cutting spending and the deficit, you have to acknowledge that tax cuts are not paid for.”

    McConnell: “Well, what, what, what, what are you talking about, ‘paid for?’ This is existing tax policy. It’s been in place for 10 years. What they’re talking about is raising taxes, impacting 50 percent of small business income…”

    OK, this time McConnell varied the mix a bit. He repeated his irrelevant and inaccurate dodges (“existing tax policy” and “50 percent of small business income”), and salted them with a dash of defiance (how could anybody possibly insist that tax cuts for the rich should be paid for?).

    Gregory soon tried again, by invoking the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office: “The CBO, senator, this week made it very clear that the long-term picture for the economy, for the deficit, is very dark if you extend the Bush-era tax cuts without somehow paying for them.”

    McConnell: “Look, what we’re talking about here is, is tax increases in the middle of a recession.”

    Again, he didn’t answer the question. Instead, he dodged by trotting out a party slogan (“tax increases in the middle of a recession”), the kind that falls apart upon close examination. Tax experts say that the economy can be boosted in the short term by allowing middle and lower-income people to keep their tax cuts, since most of them tend to spend their income as consumers; and it can be boosted by taking the enhanced tax levies from the rich, and using that money to fund job-creation programs.

    So Gregory tried anew: “But, Senator, with respect, you’re being unresponsive to a question, which is, are tax cuts paid for going forward, or is it borrowed money at a time when you and other Republican leaders say we must get serious about the deficit?  It’s a straightforward question.”

    McConnell: “I – yeah, I know. And I, and I gave you a straightforward answer. What we’re talking about here is raising taxes in the middle of what most Americans think is a recession.”

    Another form of the dodge is to insist, contrary to all evidence, that there was no dodge. Then came the slogan again. Then McConnell went into an extended riff about the small businesses – I’ve spared you that one – all of which goaded the host to try yet again.

    Gregory: “For a final time, I’ll go back to my question…Do you have a plan to pay for that (tax cut) extension?

    McConnell: “You’re talking about current tax policy. Why did all it of a sudden become something that may be ‘paid for’?…Raising taxes in the middle of a recession on the major job generator in America, small business, is a very, very bad idea.”

    It’s all there, yet again. In chronological order: The irrelevant dodge, the defiance dodge, the slogan dodge, the fact-averse small-business dodge. All told, I doubt that McConnell moved the prevailing poll numbers; according to the latest CNN survey, 51 percent of Americans believe that the tax cuts should expire on schedule for the rich, with an extension for everyone else; only 31 percent want the rich to keep their cuts along with everyone else.

    Actually, the GOP’s core conundrum has persisted for weeks. On a Sunday show in early August, House party leader John Boehner was asked to square the Republican rhetoric about deficit reduction with the Republican desire to keep tax cuts for the rich. His response, such as it was: “Listen, what you’re trying to do is get into this Washington game and their funny accounting over there.”

    In other words, Boehner didn’t have the faintest clue how to explain the party’s fundamental disconnect. McConnell sounded like Cicero by comparison, but neither guy could explain why it’s OK to run a bigger deficit to benefit deep-pocketed Americans, but not OK to help those whose pockets are empty. Perhaps because there’s no way to sensibly explain it.

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    On another front entirely: If you’re also a film junkie, you might be interested in my new article on the 50th anniversary of Psycho.

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