Was Walter Mondale Right on Taxes?

One of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits had Phil Hartman interviewing Walter Mondale (played by Dana Carvey) on a spoof show called “What Were You Thinking?” The basic idea was that running for president while promising to raise people’s taxes isn’t exactly an intuitive political strategy.

Hartman – Mr. Mondale, you ran for president in 1984 on a platform of raising taxes.
Mondale – Yes, I know…
Hartman – Now traditionally candidates have succeeded by vowing to … lower taxes
Mondale – I know, I know…
Hartman – In fact, I believe this applies to all levels of government, including national, state,…
Mondale – I know.
Hartman – …city…
Mondale – I know.
Hartman – …municipal township…
Mondale – I know.
Hartman – …and unincorporated hamlets.
Mondale – I know, I know.
Hartman – So I suppose what everyone wants to know is, what were you thinking?
Mondale – Well… um… I don’t know…

I always thought the piece was hilarious but also highlighted the absurdity of the Republicans’ inflexible insistence on always wanting to lower taxes regardless of the situation, even when we are at war or they have just lowered them substantially or when we need substantially more revenue to meet the government’s obligations.

It’s obviously more difficult to convince people to support you when you’re asking them to sacrifice rather than offering to give them money, but if we never raise taxes and always lower them, eventually we’ll either have to slash people’s retirement security or spend most of our money paying interest on debt. Perhaps Walter Mondale was thinking about these things when he looked at the country’s financial condition in the early 1980s and concluded that we had to roll back Reagan’s tax cuts. In fact, Reagan reluctantly concluded the same thing.

Yet, perhaps we’ve reached a point in this country after several decades of Republican intransigence on taxes that the people are coming around to see Mondale’s point of view. How else would you describe this?

Ten months ago, when the Senate voted to pass a huge tax cut, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared, “If we can’t sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work.”

They couldn’t. They tried convincing the public their tax cuts for the rich will mostly go to the middle class, but the middle class doesn’t believe them. “I would have bet you a lot of money going into this year that if you cut people’s taxes by thousands of dollars per year, that would be politically popular,” Republican consultant Ryan Ellis told Politico. “But it has not worked out that way.” As private Republican polling has confirmed, the party “lost the messaging battle” on taxes.

I am not finding a whole lot to be hopeful about right now, but I am comforted to see the American people rejecting the Republicans last tax bill. It seems like a fresh breath of sanity in an environment that has gone completely crazy.

I hope that sanity will extend all the way down to the level of unincorporated hamlets when people go the polls next week.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.