Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 17, 2003
POLITICS: The Dean Record, Part 1: Taxes
The Wall Street Journal ran an article some weeks ago by John McClaughry, a conservative former Vermont state senator who twice ran very unsuccessfully for governor against Howard Dean (in 1992 and 1994; the first time, Dean won 202,115 to 62,805), criticizing Dean's record as governor. The National Review ran a big piece a few months back that was largely sourced from McClaughry, and a Google search reveals him as probably the main critic of Dean's Vermont record. There's nothing wrong with that -- McCalughry is obviously the most prominent of the state's few conservatives -- but there's a danger in letting all the anti-Dean memes arise from one man's point of view.
So, what's McClaughry's line? I haven't gone back to Vermont sources myself; I'm just evaluating what McClaughry, the NR piece and some the major pro-Dean articles (including a surprisingly favorable review from supply-side firebrand Stephen Moore) have cited as Dean's major pros and cons. Let's start with:
1. Taxes. Dean apparently never raised income taxes in his years as Vermont governor, and even managed an across-the-board 4% cut in 1999. That's a major plus, one that shows a guy willing to work outside his party's usual rut and who isn't enamored of high progressive tax rates simply for their own sake. (The fact that Dean may have done this with one eye on his political future is not a knock on him; a Democrat who at least thinks that cutting taxes is in his political best interests is halfway there). McClaughry blasts Dean for using the income tax cuts as cover to hike other, less visible taxes:
During his last eight years Mr. Dean signed into law increases in the sales and use, rooms, meals, liquor, cigarette, and electrical energy taxes. In 1997 he raised the corporate, telecommunications, bank franchise, and gasoline taxes. Dwarfing all of these was his approval of a state education finance "reform" built on a new 1.1% state real property tax.
Moore, who pulls no punches even in attacking Bush on tax and spending issues, is less charitable:
This is the second-highest taxing-and-spending state in the country, with collections about $600 per person above the national average . . . At one time or another, Dean raised just about every tax he could get his hands on. During his 12 years as governor, he upped the corporate income tax rate by 1.5 percentage points, the sales tax by 1 percentage point, the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack, and the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon. Sure he balanced the budget every year--by digging deeper into Vermonters' wallets.
This is actually a common gripe raised at tax-cutting Republican governors, but it's a fair criticism. McClaughry doesn't give us perspective on the relative sizes of the various tax hikes and cuts.
In the end, though, none of this really matters, because whatever credit Dean deserves for his state record on taxes, he's made a crystal-clear promise to repeal every jot and tittle of Bush's tax rate cuts, and I take him at his word on that promise. Dean may be hoping that he can use his mixed record on taxes in Vermont to convince the public that because he's a reasonable guy, his belief that we need to jack taxes back up to pre-2001 levels should be taken seriously. But then, Dean's campaign persona comes off as a lot less sober and reasonable than Walter Mondale's, and look where the tax hike pledge got Mondale (I haven't seen polling on the issue lately, but I suspect that the Bush tax cuts mostly remain popular and that most people don't favor repealing the whole thing). Raising taxes isn't just bad policy, it's bad politics as well.