Is This a Great Campaign, or What?

BEN WATTENBERG

April 01, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As the election pageant unfolds now in New York, a confession: One group of Americans was near-unanimous in its private glee at Jerry Brown's upset victory over Bill Clinton in Connecticut. For us commentators, Mr. Brown kept the wonderful game alive, probably until the summer conventions, when other write-aboutable things will start happening.

It's also good for normal Americans. Say what you will, in this election season (1) we've rarely had more choices, (2) we've never heard a broader array of ideas, and (3) it's never been more fun.

Has there been a spot on the political spectrum that has gone unrepresented? Just consider the folks who have stormed onto our television sets: Messrs. Bush, Duke, Buchanan, Clinton, Tsongas, Brown, Kerrey and Harkin -- so far. Whatever your politics, you should have been able to find something to like. And if not, just wait. Ross Perot will soon spend $100 million of his own money to convince us that he is the candidate of the common man.

Already, we've heard about isolationism and internationalism, about government Santa Claus profligacy (from a liberal Democrat!), about welfare irresponsibility (also from a Democrat!), about quotas, pornography and free speech, American pluralism and health insurance.

Now, in New York, we're hearing more about what Mr. Clinton derides as ''Jerry's Tax,'' which Mr. Clinton says is one more rip-off for the rich.

Would gentle Jerry Brown do that? Jerry's tax is actually an old and important idea that makes much theoretical sense, even if it must be jiggled with to make it add up. It's actually two taxes: a ''Value Added Tax,'' which, although Jerry denies it, is a not-so-hidden national sales tax, and a flat-rate income tax.

The VAT makes sense precisely because it is a sales tax. It thereby captures new tax revenues from those nasty Americans who don't pay their income taxes. This ''underground economy'' is large and growing. A VAT forces people who don't pay their income tax (like, say, drug dealers) to pay the not-so-hidden VAT every time they spend money (on, say, gold chains). Which means, ultimately, that thee and me won't have to pay as much tax.

The flat tax could dis-employ lots of lawyers and accountants. Tsk. Down with the 4,000 pages of the tax code! Down with complexity! Down with special tax breaks! Shake up the government! (Readers: I am really a radical.)

If Jerry's version of the Flat-VAT really harms the poor and middle class, as Governor Clinton says, that doesn't mean it can't be reconfigured to do away with regressivity. For example, the first $15,000 of family income can be exempted.

Mr. Brown's tough views about campaign spending also make some sense. But his proposed 50 percent defense cut is sufficiently stupid to remind us why ''Moonbeam'' stuck.

Moreover, this season, perhaps because Congress is in bad odor, some members have been speaking powerful truths:

Sen. John Danforth says: ''We have told Americans that they should feel sorry for themselves. We have told them we can give them something for nothing. . . . We have defrauded the country to get ourselves elected.''

Sen. Bill Bradley also recently spoke bluntly about an even more tragic deception. He criticizes Republicans and notes that: ''Democrats have suffocated discussion of self-destructive behavior among the minority population in a cloak of silence and denial. The result is that yet another generation has been lost.''

Our politics this year is a revealing and fascinating spectator sport. That, first, is what popular democracy must be. It makes the spectators wiser when they come to be participants in November.

It's easier to enjoy the pageant now. When the Cold War was in process, issues had an apocalyptic flavor. Wrong choices could lead to dangerous places. No more. This great nation will survive and flourish with any of these mugs as president.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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