Matt Bai's Thursday "Political Times" column in the New York Times, "A Risky Campaign Tactic: Unpleasant Truth ,"
heralded the comeback of former liberal Republican Lincoln Chafee, who
left the party after losing his re-election bid in 2006 and is running
for governor of Rhode Island as an independent. What brave-if-brutal
"truth" is Chafee telling? The need for tax hikes, naturally.
There's a lot of talk in Washington these days about "hard choices"- specifically, about why no one ever seems to make them. A lot of policy experts and former members of Congress (who no longer have to run) will assure you, for instance, that the only way to shrink the national debt is through some combination of higher taxes and reduced spending on entitlement and military programs. The problem is that politicians generally want to keep their jobs, and they highly doubt the proposition that voters can be persuaded to embrace even modestly painful solutions in an unforgiving political environment.
This is precisely the proposition being tested, however, in this tiny state, where Lincoln Chafee is running for governor as an independent. Mr. Chafee, you may recall, served seven seemingly tortured years as a Republican senator opposed to his own president's agenda, before the voters - exasperated with Republicans, period - cut him loose in 2006. Adrift like other Republican moderates, Mr. Chafee broke with the party altogether and has now decided to run his own kind of highly unusual campaign, based on the risky premise that unpleasant times demand some unpleasant truths.
Everyone agrees that the ultimate answer for a state like Rhode Island is to raise more money principally by creating more jobs, which is why Mr. Chafee is promoting a new transportation hub near the state's major airport. In the short term, though, Mr. Chafee is against any further cuts in spending on social programs or any additional tax cuts, both of which have been the trend in recent years. Instead, he is telling voters he would seek to eliminate a series of exemptions to the state's sales tax, effectively raising the cost of food, clothing and other items by 1 percent - a proposal he says would raise $100 million more.
Bai isn't sure if the tax would be effective and downplays its import ("it means that $200 in school clothes would cost an extra two bucks") but admires Chafee for it anyway. Bai hailed Chafee for making a brave and "rare" argument for tax hikes.
In fact, Mr. Chafee appears to be the only statewide challenger this year - that is, a candidate who does not already have to balance a budget - promising to pursue a specific tax increase. Whether or not more sales taxes make sense for Rhode Island (it would, after all, close only a quarter of the projected budget gap while adding to the burden of low-income families), the rarity of Mr. Chafee's argument - and the fact that is comes from an independent - tells us something about the boxes in which both parties find themselves at the moment.
Bai blamed knee-jerk opposition to taxes and a "hard line on social issues" for the disappearance of Republicans in New England.
Republicans, meanwhile, so defined themselves as tax-slashing conservatives in better times that they seem loath now to consider any deviations from the policy, for fear that their own grass-roots activists will revolt. All Republican candidates for governor in more than a dozen states (and 97 percent of all Republicans seeking federal office) have signed a pledge, circulated by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, not to support any new taxes. This explains, along with the party's hard line on social issues, the near extinction of New England Republicans like Mr. Chafee, whose more traditional notion of fiscal responsibility has fallen out of favor with conservatives.
Huh? Chafee's voting record in the Senate did not exactly bespeak an obsession with "fiscal responsibility." The American Conservative Union's last rating of his voting record in 2006 was 35 out of 100 , putting him safely on the center-left of the spectrum.
In the past Bai has called both Barack Obama and Howard Dean "gifted orators ," and argued for Hillary Clinton's "conservative leanings " in an October 2005 article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
Clay Waters is director of Times Watch. You can follow him on Twitter .