Didn’t Clinton say he would not raise taxes on the middle class too?

From today’s Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122333585431009523.html)

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

As John McCain heads into the second round of presidential debates tonight, Yogi Berra’s words come to mind. Mr. McCain could do worse than remind the middle class what happened to them the last time a charismatic Democratic candidate promised them a tax cut. While he’s at it, he might also remind them how much more expensive it will be to send Barack Obama to the White House at a time when his fellow Democrats will have a majority in both houses of Congress.

The Clinton years hold some good lessons on both these scores. Back when Mr. Clinton was campaigning for president in 1992, he made a pretty direct pitch: Raise taxes on people making more than $200,000, and use those revenues to fund tax relief for the “forgotten middle class.”

In an October presidential debate, then-Gov. Clinton laid out the marginal-rate increase he wanted and some of his plans for the revenue that would be brought in. He followed with a pledge:

“Now, I’ll tell you this,” he said. “I will not raise taxes on the middle class to pay for these programs. If the money does not come in there to pay for these programs, we will cut other government spending, or we will slow down the phase-in of the programs.”

Mr. Clinton, of course, won that election. And as the inauguration approached, he began backtracking from his promise. At a Jan. 14, 1993, press conference in New Hampshire, he claimed that it was the media that had played up a middle-class tax cut, not him. A month later, he announced his actual plan before a joint session of Congress.

On page one of the New York Times, the paper described the fate of the middle-class tax cut this way: “Families earning as little as $20,000 a year — members of the ‘forgotten middle class’ whose taxes he promised during his campaign to cut — will also be asked to send more dollars to Washington under the President’s plan.”

In some ways, we are today reliving the campaign of 1992. As in 1992, the Democrat is promising a middle-class tax cut. As in 1992, the Democrat is hammering the Republican as a tool of the rich. And as in 1992, the Republican doesn’t seem to have an answer.

Give Sen. Obama his due. His patter is direct and easy to understand. (“I will cut taxes — cut taxes — for 95% of all workers and their families,” “if you make under $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes go up one dime.”) And his language about putting working families first is hard to attack as class warfare when his opponent is blaming our financial woes on Wall Street’s greed.

But this doesn’t have to be 1992 all over again. Not, at least, if Mr. McCain begins to direct his fire as much against the Democratic establishment on Capitol Hill as against Mr. Obama. For one thing, Congress is even less popular than the president. For another, the need for a Republican check on a Democratic Washington is a potent argument.

That was one of the lessons from the Clinton years. For the first two years of his first term — when Democrats controlled Congress — Mr. Clinton was a different president. With Democrats in control of Washington, the middle-class tax cut vanished, a massive tax hike was approved, and the political debate centered around HillaryCare.

Then came 1994, the “Contract with America” — and a reform-minded Republican Congress. Robert L. Bartley, the late great editor of this newspaper, liked to note the bracing effect the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress had on the market — and the Democratic president. After a few skirmishes, President Clinton would go on to embrace welfare reform, sign a cut in the capital gains tax, and even declare that “the era of Big Government is over.”

Barring divine intervention, a President Obama would not have a Republican Congress to worry about. Instead, he would be working with a Democratic speaker of the House who loaded billions in pork onto a bill meant to fund our troops; with a Democratic Senate majority leader who promised to change the way Congress spent but fought earmark reform; and with committee leaders such as Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, who did so much to bring us the financial implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

In this kind of Washington, the American taxpayer could use a Gary Cooper: the “High Noon” lawman willing to stand up for us when everyone else is ducking for cover. Marshal McCain, anyone?


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