When Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in Charlotte, he will no doubt channel party heroes of the past like Bill Clinton and JFK and FDR, all of whom are celebrated still for their charisma and raw political skills. But he would do well to heed the wisdom of Walter Mondale.
Yes, that’s right. Most Democrats see Mondale as a faintly embarrassing relic from an era in which Democrats had lost their way, and of course there is something to that. He was also one of the last Democrats to make the case that government was worth paying for, not just by the rich but also by the middle-income households that rely on expensive social programs.
By the summer of 1984, Mondale, the former Minnesota senator who had served as vice-president under Jimmy Carter, knew that he was facing an uphill battle for the White House. The brutal Reagan recession had given way to a V-shaped Reagan recovery, and Reagan Democrats were thick on the ground. So Mondale decided to do something very strange at that year’s Democratic National Convention. Rather than make the most anodyne, ultra-cautious, poll-tested argument he and his team could conjure up, he told the truth as he understood it. “Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes,” he told the assembled delegates. “And so will I.”
Mondale lambasted Reagan for his secret tax plan that would “sock it to average-income families” and “leave his rich friends alone,” just as critics of the Romney-Ryan ticket have alleged that the GOP’s conspicuously vague tax reform ideas would almost certainly mean shifting the tax burden downward.
Yet the really interesting part of Mondale’s tax plan that year is that it didn’t just raise taxes on America’s highest-earning households. In an era of relatively high inflation, during which “bracket creep” was a big concern for middle-income families, he called for limiting the indexing of tax brackets for roughly half of all households, a step that raised most of the revenue he hoped to generate from individual taxpayers. There were, to be sure, steeper tax increases for high-income households, but Mondale maintained that all non-poor families should chip in to tackle yawning deficits and to make the investments he believed were necessary to foster “the best-educated, best-trained generation in American history.”