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Taxation Without Inspiration

William Galston is a very smart man who ably bridges the gap between academia and policy-making as well as anyone in the country. But, when it comes to giving political advice, his penchant for centrist wonkery sometimes gets the best of him.

The latest example is his suggestion that President Obama should make “comprehensive tax reform” the main goal of his next two years in office. Where’s the evidence that Americans would flock to his side if Obama staked his presidency on an inspirational call to build a greater, more prosperous nation—by simplifying the tax code? Is there any sizeable group of voters outside the pleasant confines of Washington think tanks, the Ways and Means Committee, selected corporate law firms, and the dear friends of David Broder that is passionate about overhauling the way revenues are apportioned and collected? Despite the anger of many liberals and some conservatives at the plan Obama and Republican leaders agreed on this week, most Americans seem to endorse what they know about it. According to a Gallup poll, two-thirds of the public supports extending both all the Bush tax cuts and unemployment benefits.

Since a majority of Americans began paying income taxes in the 1940s, they have had two major concerns about the system: They want their taxes to be as low as possible and their rates to be reasonably fair. As the recent Gallup poll shows, the first desire usually trumps the second one. Of course, everyone who is not an accountant likes the idea of a simplified form, with fewer exemptions for “special interests.” But, when such interests include a deduction for your mortgage, your child care, and/or donations to your favorite charity, they cease to seem very “special” at all.

I assume one reason Galston is excited about his big idea is that it would help promote his larger vision of a messianic centrism that might sweep the nation. Along with David Frum, he has just launched No Labels, a group whose founding statement trumpets “a return to the essence of our beliefs,” first among them being that “Americans are entitled to a government and a political system that works—driven by shared purpose and common sense.” No Labels then goes on to proclaim such lofty objectives as “empower[ing] people with the tools for success” and “embrac[ing] … the principle of equal opportunity.” Such banalities remind me of Texas populist Jim Hightower’s old maxim, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but white lines and dead armadillos.”

A passion for tax reform is like a single-minded desire for deficit reduction; it elevates the process of governance over the purposes that most people want the government to serve. Although Obama may warm to the kind of plan Galston would favor, the president should not spend much time or political capital on it. And its appeal to a well-connected minority of thinkers like Galston could encourage a well-heeled figure like Michael Bloomberg to run a centrist race for the White House—which would likely accomplish what any Democrat, moderate or not, dreads most: the election of a right-wing Republican.

Obama should devote his State of the Union address to proposing bold solutions to issues most Americans really do care about: their jobs, their health care, their homes, their education, and their environment.