Angelides can’t shake Mondale

It’s hard not to pity Phil Angelides, the Democrats’ pick to terminate the Terminator. In some ways, if you think about it, his dilemma was forged by Walter Mondale, the national party’s pick to stop the Gipper.

The Terminator, we all know, is the Hollywood moniker for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Gipper, as well, was a nickname created in Tinseltown for Ronald Reagan, a governor and then a president, who led what was called “the tax revolt.” Both men understood this: Cutting taxes? Popular. Raising taxes? Boo. (We use the past tense carefully: We think Gov. Schwarzenegger still understands the case for low taxes.)

Sure, both men wouldn’t shy away from raising taxes if forced by legislators to do so. But they stand — in Reagan’s case, stood —on a philosophical foundation: that the most prosperous and dynamic economy arises when politicians allow citizens to keep and put freely to use as much of their own honestly earned income as possible.

When such leaders of necessity deviate from such a philosophy, voters notice. In most cases (the current president’s father, in 1992, being an exception), voters will forgive. Bruised, the philosophy remains standing. There always will be taxes to lower.

And taxes to raise. Which brings us to Walter Mondale, vice president in the Carter administration, who the Democrats in 1984 hoped would deny Reagan a second term. Against such a popular opponent, he thought he’d play the “responsibility” card. So Mondale actually promised to raise taxes, calculating that the sheer sobriety of the moment would stun voters into supporting him.

Mondale stood on an antithetical foundation, namely that government should forever expand to solve human problems. The only way to pay for such solutions, never mind whether they actually work, is to keep raising taxes. Mondale’s humiliating defeat showed that voters, 22 years ago, felt insecure upon such a wobbly foundation.

Even now Democratic candidates dare not repeat the Mondale mistake. You don’t promise to raise taxes unless you pledge to give back something to somebody. And Angelides manifestly has not been able to shake the tax-raiser image pinned on him by his primary opponent, Steve Westly.

This week we learned how he intended to resolve the Mondale problem: by arbitrarily drawing up class differences. We won’t even recite the widely reported numerical formulae because next year, owing to political exigencies, there will be new ones. The Democratic hopeful wills us to believe that business owners won’t pass new tax burdens onto consumers. He even expects medium-size businesses to survive after he’s made them pay for their workers’ health care.

Angelides also proposes “middle-class tax cuts,” a Clintonian idea that helped Democrats move beyond Mondale. But under the proposal, combined-income couples lose incentive to build their wealth. Like Mondale, he doesn’t get household economics, the key to good politics.

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