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YOUR TAXES : IT CAME FROM WASHINGTON : The Dreaded ‘T’ Word

Susan Christian is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times

Read his lips: No new taxes. For a few months, anyway.

Within a week of President Bush’s inauguration, he already was hedging a bit on his oft-repeated campaign promise that he would reduce the national deficit through means other than an income tax hike. “I haven’t thought beyond one year,” the new President conceded in his first press conference.

If and when he announces a dreaded tax increase, the news will surprise few Americans, according to a recent poll. In a survey conducted by the ABC network in January, 77% of the 1,513 participants said they believe that Bush will renege on that pledge. Yet, apparently, they like him anyway: 65% of those polled gave Bush a favorable rating.

So, what’s the deal? Must a candidate curse the word “tax” in order to be elected, even when the very people who choose him distrust that oath? Do voters vote their pocketbook?

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Yes to both questions, experts agree.

“Obviously, people don’t believe the ‘no new taxes, read my lips’ theme Bush chanted throughout the campaign,” said John Hutchens, vice president of Hamilton & Staff, a political research firm based in Washington. A poll recently conducted by the firm produced similar results to ABC’s: 83% of the 1,500 respondents predicted a federal tax increase.

“Voters tend to treat campaign slogans as symbolic--that Bush meant he would do everything he could to prevent taxes from going up,” Hutchens explained. “Of the two candidates, voters thought Bush would fight harder at holding the line.”

"(Americans) liked Bush’s rhetoric, even though they understood that in the final event, the issue of raising taxation may be entirely beyond his control,” said Mark Petracca, assistant professor of politics and society, UC Irvine. “The comfort that Bush was giving to the voters turned out to be more important than whether or not they believed he would fulfill that promise.”

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Even Michael S. Dukakis’ presidential campaign manager, Susan Estrich, concurred that in the 1988 election, voters opted for the situation they perceived as the lesser of two tax increases.

“When we probed the tax issue, we found that there was a substantial minority, if not a majority, of voters who thought that taxes would go up no matter who won,” Estrich said. “Dukakis didn’t promise a tax hike, either; he simply said that that no responsible candidate could rule it out.”

But Democrats continue to viewed as the party that raises taxes, Estrich said. “So whereas voters didn’t take the pledges as iron-clad, taxation still was a bigger vulnerability for Dukakis than for Bush.”

“In the last three electoral cycles, the American people have systematically elected Republicans, because Republicans have a reputation for raising taxes only as a last option,” said Leslie Goodman, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

“However, Democrats have more luck in state and city elections,” she said. “At the local level, people seem to feel that government should be involved in solving certain social problems; there’s more of a willingness to allow taxes to creep up.”

Eleven years ago, Californians rebelled against local taxes as well when they rallied behind the tax-slashing Proposition 13. But since that pre-Reaganomics era of discontent, Americans have mellowed somewhat, according to California pollster Mark DiCamillo.

“The anti-government sentiment reached a peak in 1978, but has since subsided,” said DiCamillo, managing director of the Field Institute. “Today, there is greater support of tax increases than there was 10 years ago. After eight years with a President who stubbornly refused to raise taxes, the public has come to understand that there is a deficit problem and that we don’t have enough revenues.”

Taxpayers may anticipate a bigger bill from the IRS, but it nonetheless would come as a shock.

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“Most Americans will tell you in polls that they expect tax increases, but they’ll still be upset when they get them,” said I. A. Lewis, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll. “On one hand, they understand taxes are necessary; but on the other hand, they feel that some of their tax money is being squandered.”

“There’s always a story about the Defense Department contracting a toilet seat or something for $10,000,” said Sheldon Kamieniecki, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at USC. “People feel that there’s a lot of waste and cheating going on, which makes taxation an extremely unpopular issue during campaigns.”

Voters vote their pocketbooks with the past in mind, as well as the future. “Surveys show that the way people vote is a retrospective evaluation of the economy’s well-being,” said UCI professor Petracca. “They do exactly what Ronald Reagan told them to do in 1980 and 1984--they ask themselves the simple question, ‘Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’ ”

“One of the things we failed to do in the (Dukakis) campaign was effectively make a case for change,” Estrich admitted. “The country felt satisfied with the economy.”

Although “the large majority expects taxes to increase,” DiCamillo said, “they don’t want to hear about it during campaigns.”

Walter Mondale, 1984 Democratic presidential candidate, learned that lesson the hard way. “He thought--which was a demonstration of his naivete--that by being honest about the need to raise taxes, he would gain approval,” Lewis said. “But there are some things you don’t want to be honest about.”

“The only candidates to produce their own budgets in (the 1988) campaign lost early in the primaries,” pointed out Estrich. “Bruce Babbit, who said: ‘I’m going to put my budget on the table and endorse new taxes,’ didn’t survive long.”

Nowadays, apparently, there are not just two but three certainties in life: death, taxes and broken campaign promises. What price--aside from inevitable higher taxes--do voters pay for demanding their candidates to dodge the cold, hard truth?

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“The public is becoming more and more cynical about political campaigns, and if Bush ends up having to raise taxes, it will only add to that cynicism,” Estrich said. “It would be great if from that disappointment came a public that wanted a more in-depth debate of campaign issues--but I’m not sure real discussion is ever going to dominate in presidential politics.

“I suppose one could say it’s unfortunate that our election process has come to this. But my own sense is that elections are as much about character--and about getting a sense of the person behind the candidate--as they are about detailed agendas.”


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