Columns » Ernest Dumas

Sound bites v. issues

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If you distilled the congressional elections in Arkansas down to their essence, it would be this: Republicans own the sound bites and Democrats own the issues.

But that is not how it looks, is it? Republicans utter their sound bites, all variations of the theme that Democrats want to tax and spend while they want to cut and save. Even Rep. John Boozman, the Senate candidate, can make it sound plausible.

The Democrats meantime are afflicted by the old disease of Democrats, at least in this region: terminal timidity. Voters would love their issues, but the Democrats temporize, apologize and offer a halfhearted defense of their and their party's stand on the big issues. They don't sound like they are terribly more knowledgeable about the issues than the Republicans. Well, state Sen. Joyce Elliott in the Second District sounds pretty sure of things, but that's it.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln has found her voice on a few things like Social Security and the goofy plan embraced by Arkansas Republicans to shift taxes dramatically from the rich and corporations to the middle class through something hilariously named the Fair Tax. But she doesn't take Boozman on energetically on the big issues.

If she and the Democratic House candidates did take them on and found the simple and effective way to do it, Boozman, Tim Griffin, Steve Womack, Rick Crawford and Beth Anne Rankin would get the votes of diehard Republicans and no more.

Let's take the two big issues — health-care reform and the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. The Republicans — I think all five stand united on this — say that on both issues the Democrats are just out to raise people's taxes during bad times. Great sound bites, and the evidence is that they have worked. But let's see who is right on the facts.

First, extension of the Bush tax cuts, which expire on Dec. 31: Congress may act by then but if it does not it will be the urgent first thing on the agenda when the new Congress is sworn in with all these Republicans. The tax cuts, which went mostly to people with very high incomes, define the Republicans. They were the signal achievement of the six-year Republican reign in Washington — that and two wars.

The Democrats support, though timidly, President Obama's plan to extend the reduced tax rates from the Bush years and Obama's own tax cuts that were included in the 2009 recovery act except for single people earning more than $200,000 a year and couples earning more than $250,000. Those taxpayers would continue to get all the tax cuts enjoyed by the other 98 percent of Americans but not the extra tax cut of about 3 percent that Bush and the Republican Congress gave them in 2001 and 2003.

All five Republicans, as best as I can tell, support the Republican plan embodied in SB 3773. It would continue the extra tax cut on the rich and virtually eliminate the tax on great estates, but it would not continue the Obama tax cuts for middle- and low-income working families that were embodied in the earned income and child tax credits.

So how will each of those work out for Arkansas families? Boozman, Griffin, Womack, Rankin and Crawford would force more than 98 percent of Arkansans to pay more taxes than they would pay under the Obama/Democratic plan. (Congressman Mike Ross of the Fourth District supports both plans.) Citizens for Tax Justice applied the tax rates under each plan to the latest Treasury Department summary of the filings of the roughly 1.2 million Arkansans who filed income tax returns.

Here is how much more or less in taxes a family in each category of Arkansas tax filers will pay on average under the Republican plan than under the Obama/Democratic plan:

Lowest 20%: $178 more

Second 20%: $120 more

Middle 20%: $165 more

Fourth 20%: $39 more

Next 15%: $0

Next 4%: $27 less

Richest 1%: $22,048 less

Only the richest 5 percent would fare better under the Republicans, a whopping $22,048 for the average millionaire. Nearly everyone else fares better under the Democrats.

See how Boozman and the rest defend that? All that they can truthfully say is, those are the people we represent. They couch it differently. Those richest 5 percent are small businessmen who create the jobs for everyone else, they say. But that is simply and provably not true.

Oh, yes, what about those high taxes under the new health-care reform law?

Most Arkansans will pay neither higher nor lower taxes. But some 280,000 families will be eligible for substantial tax cuts — the tax credits for families that earn less than 400 percent of the poverty line (roughly $88,000 this year for a family of four). Some 130,000 families who have no insurance now will claim the tax credits, which will be applied directly to their insurance premiums, when they or their employers purchase insurance under the low-cost state exchanges. Another 150,000 who are insured now will have their taxes lowered to help pay for their insurance when they enter the exchange. Families USA calls it the biggest middle-class tax cut in history. Republicans are committed to repealing it.

The real tax increases? Fewer than 18,000 of the richest Arkansans will pay a higher Medicare tax — less than 1 percent — and also pay the little Medicare tax on their unearned income for the first time. They are the taxpayers who now enjoy the lowest effective tax rates of everyone.

How would you like to defend that posture? You would stick with the sound bite and hope the other side lies doggo.

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