Saturday, April 16, 2011

Candor in Politics

Walter Mondale knows something about being candid with voters.

For one thing, he knows it can backfire on you. In a piece in the Washington Post, Mondale recalled that, in his acceptance speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, "I told the truth" when he promised to raise taxes.

He was ridiculed for that promise. Critics did, as Mondale writes, describe it as "exemplifying the folly of proposing tax hikes during an election" and not without justification, either. Ronald Reagan won the election, carrying every state except Mondale's home state of Minnesota.

"[B]ut I won the debate," Mondale observes. "Reagan ended up increasing taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987."

On the face of it, it does seem like a counterproductive thing to do — proposing that voters pay more in taxes. It's like any time in your life when you had to choose between something that was fun and something that was good for you.

Many more people would lose weight or quit smoking or accomplish something else equally desirable ... if only it wasn't so damn difficult.

It is not my intention to advocate or oppose Mondale's position on raising taxes in 2011 — but, rather, to agree with his observation that there are "political lessons" to be learned from his experience: "avoid generalities, and clearly link taxes to addressing concrete national needs."

It reminded me of a time when I was a young reporter fresh from college.

The newspaper where I went to work after graduation served a county that had approved, in a special election just a few months earlier, a one–year, one–cent–on–the–dollar sales tax to finance the construction of a new county jail.

The old county jail really was a cracker box — in fact, some prisoners escaped from it and were at large for a couple of days not long after I started working for the paper, reminding everyone of the need for a more secure facility.

I wasn't living there during the special election campaign, but I gathered that no one really disputed the claim that a new county jail was desperately needed. The only questions were whether this temporary sales tax would be adequate and would it be the best, most equitable way to raise the funds.

The voters decided the answer to both questions was yes and gave the proposal a big thumb's up.

It was a fair tax, same amount, applied to every purchase within the county, large or small. And it turned out to be more than sufficient to cover the cost of building a new jail.

Matter of fact, the tax raised enough money to cover the cost of the new jail in nine months. The last three months of the tax were going to be a windfall for the county.

That got some folks in the county thinking. If they could get the voters to approve a permanent one–cent–on–the–dollar tax, they could create an all–purpose fund to be used in any way that county officials saw fit.

I heard some of the early musings — at county meetings and in behind–closed–doors conversations — about creating a fund that could be used in the event of a tornado or a flood (both frequent threats in central Arkansas).

But they encountered unexpected resistance this time. At first, people were showing up at county meetings to request that funds be allocated for this project or that one, for this purpose or that one, and county officials kept reminding them that this fund was supposed to be along the lines of an emergency, all–purpose fund.

That wasn't good enough for the voters. They wanted specifics. And, when county officials wouldn't commit to specific purposes, the voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal to make the tax permanent.

I remember how shocked the county officials were on Election Night. It had all been so easy for them only a year earlier. What went wrong?

They didn't get it then. Some of them probably never did get it.

They had been specific about a need the first time. They had been vague the second time. To the voters, it smacked of a slush fund, and they weren't going to authorize anything like that.

Things really haven't changed that much. Voters still want honesty from their leaders — however remote that prospect may seem at times.

Asking people to pay more in taxes is never a popular thing to do. But people can be a lot more reasonable than many politicians tend to think.

Try some honesty ... for a change.

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