Taking it Beyond He Said/She Said - Not Too Taxing After All

Today, one journalist makes the rare effort to examine and de-spin a campaign sound bite, and along the way to offer both his own commentary and criticism, as well as those of outside experts.

For that, we tip our hat to David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal. Wessel’s “Capital” column is an example (subscription required) of the sort of piece Campaign Desk would like to see more of as November 2 nears — much more of.

Wessel takes the following vague (and grammatically challenged) Bush campaign sound bite/attack on John Kerry, and dissects it sentence by sentence in an attempt to answer the pressing question: “what did [Bush] mean?” and, perhaps more important, how thoroughly is it spun?

Said Bush of Kerry in Canton, Ohio yesterday: “He said he’s only going to raise the tax on the so-called rich. But you know how the rich is [sic]: They’ve got accountants. That means you pay. That means your small business pays. It means the farmers and ranchers pay.”

First, Wessel explains each candidate’s stance on “how heavily to tax Americans with incomes over $200,000 per year” (undoubtedly a topic of interest for Wall Street Journal subscribers). He confirms that Kerry wants to “raise the tax,” in Bush’s words, on people in this bracket — and he reports by precisely how much and what Kerry says he will do with that money.

Does Kerry’s plan mean, as Bush claims, that “small business pays,” that “farmers and ranchers pay”? The “bulk” of “small businesses, farmers and ranchers,” Wessel concludes, “don’t make enough to fall into top brackets” and therefore won’t pay more under Kerry’s plan. Readers then hear from an Urban Institute economist (and “Reagan tax official”) who says that by cutting taxes now, but not cutting spending, “Mr. Bush is guaranteeing tax increases in the future.” And Wessel takes “the prospect of such tax increases, no matter who wins,” to urge readers to listen “to rhetoric about the Alternative Minimum Tax” (AMT). And then he explains why. (For one, the AMT is “encroaching on the upper-middle class,” Wessel writes, and “without changes [it] will be bigger than the regular income tax before the end of the decade.”)

Yes, readers get both campaigns’ two cents in the piece (the he- and the she-said), but they also get Wessel’s two cents, as well as those of two economists. The result? By the end of the story, as if by magic, the reader comes away with a clear — if basic — grasp of how each candidate approaches taxing (in Bush’s words) the “so-called rich,” and what each candidate’s approach might actually do for (or to) them.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.