The Final Taboo

April 19, 2010

In 1988, trailing badly in the polls to Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, Republican George H. W. Bush reluctantly allowed a line to remain in the final draft of a speech: “Read my lips: no new taxes!” That sound bite (and attack ads questioning his opponent’s sanity) won him the election, but then he was forced to impose a 10% income tax surcharge to cover the cost of the Persian Gulf War or face a bankrupt administration. In the 1992 election Bill Clinton made Bush into a one-term president by forcing him to eat his no-new-taxes pledge.

George W. Bush started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during his time as American president. Unlike his father, “W” made no effort to pay for his foreign adventures. While traditionally governments have called for a strong commitment from the citizenry to support wars, Bush recognized the paper-thin public support for his projects and avoided seeking a visible public commitment such as a tax levy or a draft. Instead he ran deficits while pumping up military budgets and even cutting taxes. The cost of the two wars has almost hit a trillion dollars ($985 billion), and there is no plan to pay for it. It costs a million dollars per year to keep a U.S. soldier in the field and Obama recently sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The fiscal abyss looms, but few dare gaze upon it.

George Sr. had been forced into this tax position by the right wing of his party, and from that point on national campaigns in North America have been more about getting elected than laying the groundwork for a successful administration. In fact, the disparity between what it takes to run a country successfully and what it takes to get elected to the position soon widened to the point that tactician Karl Rove Jr. is afforded the sort of respect in the media formerly reserved for senators who had championed important legislation. All Rove has done is get George W. Bush elected through dirty tricks.

What does this have to do with Canada? I fear the Republican’s fiscal recklessness has made its way north. In Diefenbaker’s day it was said that the party ruled which marched to the left while proclaiming it marched to the right, and claimed it would never change while adapting to every eventuality. Harper’s government seems to have adapted the rule to: “Crow about how prudent Canada is fiscally while spending like a drunken sailor.” Or perhaps it involves warning Canadians about the threat of socialism while nationalizing GM and Chrysler.

The recession of 2009 struck and stimulus funding was needed to protect the minority government from the opposition. Free market principles be damned, away went $65 billion dollars to Conservative discretionary spending projects. With the GST reduced to 5% and the $13 billion surplus from the Martin administration spent, there’s no real prospect of balancing the budget without increased revenue, but with the Bush taboo, no politician can admit to a plan to increase taxes and win an election. Look what happened to Stephane Dion with his carbon tax. Thus Jim Flaherty clings doggedly to the party line and insists that growth will take care of the deficit within five years…. or fourteen.

Most likely Canadians will face a federal election within the year. That will mean another round of attack ads. Rumour has it that the favourite Conservative attack line this time will be: “Ignatieff: we just can’t afford him.”

Why? When asked by a reporter if he would raise taxes to pay off a deficit, Ignatieff once said he couldn’t rule it out. That’s it. A $65 billion dollar Tory war chest and millions more spent on American-made signs, and airplanes to fly MPs around to hand out cheques with the Conservative logo illegally attached. But an attack ad blaming the other guy for trying to balance the budget will probably work.

The No-New-Taxes pledge – I’ll call it the Bush taboo – means that no potential leader can honestly speak to voters, because voters themselves are dishonest. They commonly vote their prejudices and their wallets, and only on rare occasions, their aspirations.

So what’s a voter to do? Reject attack ads. Say an ad comes along during a hockey game: “Stephen Harper. The way he’s handled the Guergis situation, if he were a school principal he wouldn’t last a week.” Change the channel. Don’t change your attitude toward Stephen Harper, even though you know in your heart it’s true.

And of course if a politician asks voters to think rationally about paying for our war and funding our pension plans and medical care instead of passing the problem on to the next generation, we would likely be wise to pay attention, rather than allowing the nearest bully to shout the idea down in an attack ad.

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