GOP Snared in Clinton Tax Trap?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – April 16, 1998

A long time ago, Catholic schoolboys were admonished to “stay away from bad companions” and “avoid the occasions of sin.”

Before colluding with Bill Clinton on the $516 billion tobacco tax hike, the GOP Senate should have heeded such advice. The party is now facing either a humiliating climb-down or a hellish beating. What in the world were they thinking of?

In Clinton, you have a big-government liberal who knows how to mask a naked power grab. First, find a despised villain, here, the tobacco industry. Then, find a mom-and-apple-pie victim, the kids. Then, savage the industry, and vow to never quit fighting for our kids. Distracted by the demagogic theatrics, the taxpayers then have their pockets picked by thieves moving through the crowd.

White House aide Rahm Emanuel admits the bill was structured as a “choice” between “corporate tobacco and their profits” and “our children and ensur(ing) their health and safety.”

Republicans could have exposed this fraud as another rip-off of taxpayers masquerading as a goo-goo reform. Instead, they decided to imitate Clinton and posture as even tougher on tobacco. Result: GOP fingerprints are all over a $516 billion tax hike.

Read my lips: This tax hike will shred the GOP coalition.

Not to worry, nervous Republicans reply, the industry will swallow the taxes, and we can use the money to eliminate the marriage penalty from the Internal Revenue Service code. The problem: Big Tobacco gets all its money from 43 million smokers, and this bill translates into a $1.10 price hike on every pack of cigarettes. A two-pack-a-day man and his one-pack-a-day wife will see $1,200 a year ripped right out of their paychecks.

There goes the family vacation, right up in smoke Query: How does robbing a working-class couple of $1,200 a year keep teenagers from smoking? Well, the higher the price, says Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, the fewer the number of kids who can afford cigarettes. Thus, teen smoking will fall. By this logic, why don’t we double the price of a six-pack of Michelob to cut teen drinking, which is more deadly than smoking? Answer: Beer companies have yet to be converted into objects of politically correct hatred like the tobacco companies. But that day is coming. To see the GOP biting the hand of an industry that fed it for years tells us much about the modern party. At least some liberals can claim that they have always hated Philip Morris. If this tobacco tax becomes law, the GOP will have betrayed its base and will enrage smokers, millions of whom are Reagan Democrats. Yet if Congress backs away from that $516 billion tax bill, it will blow a hole in its own spending plans, and Clinton will be all over the GOP for pandering to the tobacco industry and selling out the kids.

Lesson: Political opportunism does not pay. At least when you stand on principle, there is honor in defeat.

Because it is against a wall, facing ruin, with nothing to lose, the tobacco industry is showing some moxie. When Clinton visited Kentucky, he was confronted by small farmers demanding to know what they had done to be put on his White House enemies list. Faced with an authentic victim, Clinton was on the defensive.

All of which reveals the fraudulence of what is going down. If it is honorable to grow tobacco, why is it dishonorable to sell it? And if tobacco farmers are worthy of solicitude, why are tobacco sellers killers of children? When that African American lady, Mattie Mack, put a human face on small tobacco farmers, it spoiled Clinton’s little morality play by de-demonizing his designated devil.

This episode reveals something more disheartening than GOP ineptitude in countering Clinton’s skills as a manipulator of opinion. Part of the GOP leadership hierarchy has lost its faith. It may still declaim about less government and more freedom, but it no longer believes deeply enough to risk defeat. Our leaders seem to have come to look upon a loss of power like death itself, and hence, any abandonment of principle is justified to avert so intolerable a fate.

But a party terrified of defeat is already dead in its soul and open to intimidation. The dog can smell the fear in the man.

Though Congress is busily renaming everything in sight for Ronald Reagan, few Congresses have ever been less like the Gipper. Reagan was as loved as he was, and is as cherished as he is, because he stood by his beliefs and was ready to go down to defeat fighting for them. Reagan had convictions, and Reagan had courage, and these are the real twin deficits in this demoralized, demoralizing city.