You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Is That Hillary Clinton Talking? Or Grover Norquist?

Barack Obama has taken a lot of grief for appropriating right-wing talking points.  And rightly so.  Consider health care.  When he has argued against "forcing" people to buy insurance, as Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have proposed to do, he undermined the case for an individual mandate -- something virtually every expert agrees is necessary to achieve truly universal coverage. 

But look who's talking like a conservative now.

Talking Points Memo has obtained a Clinton mailing in Nevada -- apparently used in New Hampshire as well -- in which the campaign argues against Obama's Social Security proposal. 

For those who haven't followed this issue, Obama has said he would consider raising the cap on the payroll tax, in order to put more money into the Social Security system. Presently, individuals only pay Social Security taxes on roughly the first $100,000 of their income.

It's a defensible measure on its own terms, since it would actually make the program's financing more progressive.  Under the current system, a CEO pulling in several million dollars a year pays no more Social Security taxes than a profsesional making $100,000.  It would also, as advertised, improve the program's long-term finances.

But in pressing his case, Obama has adopted the same right-wing frame -- of a Social Security crisis too politically perilous for most politicans to address -- that President Bush and the Republicans used when they tried to privatize the program. Although that effort failed, the fight is recent enough -- and myth of a Social Security crisis prevalent enough -- that merely echoing the language is enough to jeopardize the program (which, for the record, is most definitely not in crisis). And Obama should know better.

In this mailer, however, it's Clinton's rhetoric that's worrisome.  It attacks Obama because "Nevada families need to keep more of their hard-earned dollars -- not less..." and "We need a President that will help hard-working families keep more of what they earn..."

Feel like you've heard that before?  You have.  Whenever Democrats propose a measure that would result in higher taxes, that's the argument the Republicans make.  It doesn't matter how little money is involved -- or whether, as is often the case, it's only the wealthy who will be paying more.  It doesn't even matter if, rather than imposing a new tax altogether, the Democrats are simply proposing to allow a recently enacted tax break to expire.  

Clinton, of all people, should know this.  She was there, in the White House, when her husband signed the 1993 budget -- which conservatives and the media pilloried as a major tax hike, even though it was only the wealthy who saw their burden go up significantly.  And, of course, Clinton -- like all the Democrats -- is proposing to let the Bush tax cuts expire, so that she can finance her ambitious domestic policy proposals while chipping away at the deficit. 

It's true that, under Clinton's proposed scheme, only relatively wealthy taxpayers would see their tax burdens go up.  (See page 3 of her health care plan here.)  But, then, you could say the same thing about Obama's proposal. 

That's why the Clinton mailer's language is so bothersome.  She's putting her imprimatur on a talking point that can, and surely will, be used against her and any Democrat trying to enact his or her campaign agenda.  

--Jonathan Cohn