It's one of the strangest things in our politics: The only "big" ideas Republicans and conservatives seem to offer these days revolve around novel and sometimes bizarre ways of cutting taxes on rich people. Given all the attention that Herman Cain's nonsensical and regressive 9-9-9 tax plan has received, the Republican debates should have as their soundtrack that old Beatles song that droned on about the Number Nine.
Now, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hopes to pump up his campaign with a supposedly bold proposal to institute a flat tax, which would also deliver more money to the well-off. Perry plans to outline his proposal this week, but has already touted it as a sure-fire way of "scrapping the 3 million words of the current tax code."
There is absolutely nothing new about this idea, and candidates who pushed flat taxes in the past saw their campaigns flat-line, most prominently businessman Steve Forbes in 1996 and again in 2000. Politically, the idea falls apart rather quickly when middle-income voters realize that its main effect is to cut taxes on the financially privileged while usually raising them on Americans with more modest incomes.
Note to Perry: Voters are shrewd in figuring out whether tax proposals really benefit them. It's why raising taxes on millionaires wins support from a broad majority.
Why are today's Republicans so enthralled by tax gimmicks? Almost everything conservatives suggest these days is built around the single idea that if only government took less money away from the wealthy, all our problems would magically disappear.
There is a history to this. The Republican fixation on taxes goes back to the mid-1970s when supply-side economics began taking hold. The late Jude Wanniski, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal who campaigned indefatigably on behalf of lower marginal tax rates, came up with the "Two Santa Clauses" theory. He argued that if Democrats earned support by giving voters benefits through government programs, Republicans should play Santa by giving people tax cuts.
Wanniski sold his tax ideas to Jack Kemp, one of the most ebullient political figures of his generation, who in turn sold them to Ronald Reagan. Reagan made Kemp's 30 percent tax cut (co-sponsored with Sen. Bill Roth) a centerpiece of his 1980 campaign. Political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams perfectly described the result in a 1981 essay. "After years of learning that 'you don't shoot Santa Claus,' " he wrote, "the Republicans decided to nominate him."
But Republicans have a problem now. In the Kemp-Reagan days, they were selling across-the-board tax cuts. Most of their benefits flowed to the rich, but almost everyone got a piece. Today, many Republicans complain resentfully that less prosperous Americans don't pay enough in taxes -- overlooking the fact that citizens who don't pay income taxes still shell out a significant share of their earnings in payroll, sales and (directly or through their rents) property taxes.
Reagan's optimism has thus been replaced by crabby put-downs of the less affluent. Perry said it directly in his announcement speech: "We're dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don't even pay any income tax." Considering the other injustices in our society, this seems an odd and mean-spirited obsession.
"Tax the poor" is a lousy political slogan. That's why Cain's 9-9-9 plan and Perry's flat tax are doomed to fail. Among conservatives, Santa Claus has given way to Scrooge.