On Tax-Cut Politics, WSJ Adds to the Confusion

The Wall Street Journal takes its turn at the tax-cuts-as-election-issue story. But in trying to explain the politics that are at work here, the paper merely confuses the issue, and its readers.

The lede is straightforward enough:

Democrats are aiming to push legislation extending Bush-era middle-class tax cuts ahead of midterm elections. But with Republicans and several Democrats advocating a similar extension for high-earners, too, prospects for passage before November balloting appear uncertain.

So far, so good. Prospects uncertain.

The story goes on to explain that Democrats are “planning to turn the issue into a campaign theme—by blaming Republicans if the legislation fails.”

The trouble arrives a bit later, when the Journal tries to untangle the clever thinking at work here:

Given the uncertainty of the Senate outcome, the strategy offers the GOP a chance to accuse Democrats of planning to raise taxes on most Americans, by allowing all the Bush tax cuts to lapse. The cuts, passed in 2001 and 2003, will expire on Jan. 1, 2011, unless Congress passes legislation to extend them.

That’s a little hard to understand on its face, especially following a line about how Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, plans to bring an extension of middle-class tax cuts to the floor in September.

Yes, a few Democrats also want to extend tax cuts for the wealthy. But it’s still not clear how that could give Republicans “a chance to accuse Democrats of planning to raise taxes on most Americans.”

The Washington Post did a better job with this bit (and the rest) in its Sunday story:

Reluctant to take the political hit either for raising taxes or for increasing the deficit, Obama and Democratic lawmakers have postponed action on extending the middle-class tax cuts. Doing so would cost nearly $1.4 trillion through 2020, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

Republicans have been capitalizing on that delay, accusing Democrats of plotting to let all the cuts expire.

But the WSJ story only gets messier after that.

Check this out:

The strategy also could mute Republican criticism that Democrats are doing nothing to address the tax cuts’ expiration. And by having the Senate move first, it might allow vulnerable House Democrats to avoid politically risky votes to raise taxes on higher earners, or add to future budget deficits.

That’s some strategy. It could both be a chance to accuse Democrats, and a way to mute criticism of them.

I hate to say it, given our longstanding aversion to the he-said, she-said approach, but this is the rare story that might work better that way. Is the point that Republicans think the strategy gives them a chance to blame Democrats for letting the tax cuts expire (if their approach doesn’t muster the necessary votes), and Democrats see it as a way to blunt GOP criticism that they’re not doing enough to protect taxpayers from higher taxes?

It’s just too hard to tell from that Journal piece.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.