While Howard Dean repeatedly tells voters on the campaign trail that he would repeal all of President Bush’s tax cuts to pay for programs such as expanded health insurance, he is now contemplating whether to also devise tax relief for the middle class.
The potential shift in Dean’s policy comes as he has fielded criticism from some of his rivals for wanting to roll back the entire $1.7-trillion Bush tax cut package, a move opponents say would burden working people.
The airwaves in Iowa are quickly filling with commercials that knock Dean.
On Wednesday, the conservative-leaning Club for Growth organization began running an ad that calls Dean’s tax position out of the mainstream, while Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry will begin airing a commercial today that contrasts his support for middle-class tax cuts with Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who also favors repealing the entire Bush tax cut.
On Monday, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark proposed a sweeping tax reform plan that would reduce income taxes for families with children earning up to $100,000 a year, and raise taxes on millionaires.
Some of Dean’s economic advisors believe he should propose his own tax cuts for the middle class -- both to ease the economic strain on working families and to avoid giving Bush an opening to run similar political ads.
“All of us feel that raising taxes by a trillion dollars is not something that we’d want the governor to run on,” said Harlan Sylvester, who served as the chairman of Dean’s council of economic advisors during the former Vermont governor’s 11-year tenure.
“If he repeals the tax cuts, he’s going to have his own plan.”
Dean aides would not comment on the opinions of Sylvester and other advisors, first reported Wednesday in the Boston Globe. They said Dean would not alter his position on repealing the entire Bush tax cut, but maintained that the candidate has always supported additional tax reforms to help working families.
“He has never ruled out a middle-class tax cut,” press secretary Doug Thornell told reporters aboard Dean’s plane Wednesday afternoon as they flew from Iowa to Burlington.
Dean spokesman Jay Carson said Wednesday night that the candidate is committed to “making the tax system fair for working people, but with respect to specifics, no decisions have yet been made.”
But Dean’s opponents who support preserving tax cuts for the middle class suggested he was trying to alter his position to gain votes.
“This has been a bedrock position of mine ... and consistently he has argued that as a matter of principle he was going to raise taxes on the middle class,” Kerry said in Bedford, N.H.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards added in a statement: “It’s amazing what happens when politicians get close to election day. Those who say we can’t afford it suddenly say we can .... The American people won’t have to guess what I’ll do as president. They know, and I haven’t changed my mind.”
On the stump, Dean frequently talks about his intention to repeal the entire Bush tax relief program, saying, “There was no middle-class tax cut.” He argues that because the Bush administration curtailed college loan programs and failed to fund federal mandates on education and homeland security, many people end up spending more on property taxes and tuition than they save in federal taxes.
“I think we ought get rid of every dime of the Bush tax cuts so we can have health insurance, so we can have support for middle-class people who try to send their kids to college,” Dean told voters in Indianola, Iowa, on Tuesday.
Dean has told audiences he would support a plan of “tax fairness” for working families, but he has not specified what that would include.
The former governor has hinged the financing for several of his major policy proposals on the revenue he has said would be created by rolling back the Bush tax relief program. Among other things, he wants to reduce the federal deficit and provide health insurance for nearly every American. Analysts have estimated that Bush’s tax cuts will reduce federal revenue by almost $400 billion a year by 2012.
Dean has criticized some of his opponents for saying that they can simultaneously finance their policy proposals and lower taxes for the middle class.
“When we added up our stuff, you couldn’t do it, you couldn’t fit it in,” Dean said in Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 21. “I just didn’t think it was honest.”
But Sylvester says Dean will leave himself politically vulnerable if he does not provide some kind of middle-class tax relief.
“If you’re making $70,000 a year and you’ve got two kids at home and you see on TV a month before the election that Dean is going to raise your taxes by $2,000, would you like that?” Sylvester said. “I could make the ads up: ‘Gee, honey, I like Howard Dean, but how are we going to pay for the car? I guess we can take the kids to school in a cart.’ ”
On the campaign plane, senior Dean advisor Gina Glantz told reporters that the candidate stands by his intention to repeal the entire Bush tax relief package.
“There are two parts to this,” she said. “There’s the repeal of the Bush tax cuts. And there is the forward-looking tax-fairness policy paired with balancing the budget.”
Glantz would not say what such a program would be, or when Dean would announce his new plan, although, she added, “It certainly makes sense to wait for the president’s budget.”
Bush has to send his budget for the 2005 fiscal year to Congress by Feb. 2. By then, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will have cast their ballots in the first contests of the presidential primary season.
Dean’s opponents are pressing him to be more specific about his intentions before then.
“We’re running for president now,” Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said Tuesday during a candidate debate in Des Moines. “We have to tell people what we want to do.”
Dean did not field questions Wednesday about his stance on middle-class tax cuts, part of an effort by his campaign to limit the outspoken candidate’s remarks to reporters.
When members of his traveling press corps asked him to comment on the matter as he boarded his plane Wednesday morning, Dean initially said, “I’ll be happy to do it.”
A moment later, he caught himself.
“Gina has veto power,” Dean said, referring to Glantz. “I’m not allowed to say I’m happy to do anything anymore.”
Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.