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Troubling Answers On Taxes

I'm not a big fan of Barack Obama's proposal to raise the cap on the payroll tax, at least right now, mostly for political reasons. The greatest danger to the program isn't its projected financial shortfall, which is reliatvely tiny.

But I'm also not a fan of Hillary Clinton's attacks on the idea. And the exchange they just had shows why.

A few minutes ago, one of the moderators--I think it was Charlie Gibson--asked why both candidates would consider raising capital gains taxes or taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Both candidates answered, correctly, that sometimes taxes are worth it. The country has needs, after all, from faltering infrastructure to 45 million Americans without health insurance. To address those needs, government has to take action. That action costs money, which inevitably comes from taxes. As long as the investments make the country stonger, it's a worthwhile trade-off.

So next comes the question about raising the payroll tax, which Obama supports as a way to shore up Social Security's long term finances. The underlying policy logic is the same: When the expenditure is worthwhile--and strengthening Social Security, while hardly an urgent priority, seems like a worthwhile thing to do--it's ok to finance that expenditure with higher taxes.

Again, I think it's a foolish move that ultimately weakens the program politically (by reinforcing the idea that Social Security even has a financial crisis).  But rather than limit herself to that perfeclty valid criticism, Clinton starts talking like Grover Norquist, vowing not to raise taxes on the middle class.

It's a minor point...except, in a way, it's not. By the standards of modern presidential campaigns, both Clinton and Obama have been pretty scrupulous when it comes to estimating the prices of their proposals and identifying revenue sources to pay for them. But it's still entirely possible (some would say likely) the agenda will end up costing more money. Given that, I'd rather not see either candidate take taxes off the table, explicitly or implicitly. And I fear Clinton is coming close to doing that.

--Jonathan Cohn