When I wrote the post below yesterday, I hadn’t seen this after the debate interview.  It’s not pretty.  This is why you can’t run away from an honest discussion of taxes. Robert McCarthy has more this morning.

Here’s another answer you could try, Creigh, to the question, “Will you raise taxes?”

“No governor can raise taxes without the consent of the governed.  Mark Warner didn’t raise taxes.  Gov. Warner saw a need, went across the Commonwealth to discuss that need with Virginians.  They saw the need.  They understood his reasons.  And they backed him.  But even then, he couldn’t raise taxes until the General Assembly agreed with him.  They debated.  They compromised, and they voted to raise taxes.  When I’m elected, I will study our options, see how the economy is doing next year, discuss it with Virginians through the state and with their representatives to see if, together, we can come up with a plan that move us forward on an issue that concerns citizens greatly.”

Of course, that would take a backbone, which puts Democrats at a congenital disadvantage.

This morning’s debate wasn’t really illuminating, but it had its moments.

First, the award for the stupidest question, to be given to one of the local reporters who surely couldn’t hold a candle to the bright light that is David Gregory of “Meet the Press.” You guessed it. The oracle on high asks Creigh Deeds, “Are you an Obama Democrat?” Not really that far from “Do you think Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright loves America as much as you?” asked by George Stuffasockinhispuss. Gregory, oblivious to his own silliness, actually asked the question twice.

McDonnell still comes off as smoother, but borders on rehearsed and automated. Deed’s passion comes through, though others may see a tongue flapping in the wind. He loses his point occasionally. Both ignored questions so they further rebut a previous question, but McDonnell managed to do it without getting snickers from the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce audience, who, let’s face it, was more likely to favor him.

McDonnell effectively addressed the thesis question by citing his wife and especially his Iraq veteran daughter as examples of his support for working women. That didn’t deter Deeds, who recited the points from his ad several times. But he missed an opportunity. He could have addressed his opponent directly. “Bob, you say that the thesis is old hat, but your record of introducing 34 bills to restrict the right to abortions is very recent. Why did you introduce so many such bills? Do those bills reflect your attitude about women’s rights? Are you willing to explain to voters why that was so much of your legislative agenda? Are you afraid to address that question?”

The other thing that struck me is how fast each candidate talked, rattling off facts and figures that surely were lost on the many in the audience due to the acoustics and probably by a good number of people who will hear this online or on TV. McDonnell is smoother at fast talk, which gives Deeds an opportunity to appear more thoughtful by slowing down. That doesn’t mean accentuating his slight Southern drawl. But by slowing his speech and using pauses effectively, he could be a thoughtful counterweight to McDonnell’s patter. Deeds did sound more passionate but it bordered on frantic. These delivery issues are much more important than candidates think. If you talk slower, with “thoughtful” pauses, people can follow your arguments better.

Speaking slowly might also allow a candidate to say something none of them want to say. Ever since Walter Mondale said he was going to raise taxes, it has been an article of faith among politicians that they never say they’ll raise taxes, especially during a campaign. The man or woman hailed as the next Obama will be the one who can articulate a grown-up approach to taxes. The argument is not that hard to make in the case of Virginia’s transportation system. (In fact, in front of the Chamber, if either said he’d consider a tax increase they might have gotten a cheer out of the blue suit crowd–as long as it wasn’t business taxes.)

How do you make the case for tax increases? Some thoughts for starters….

  1. First, you demonstrate the courage to address the issue. That alone will win you points. You don’t have to put it in an ad (believe me your opponent will) but being an adult about the issue will win you admiration from the information gatekeepers, especially editorial boards and likely a few reporters.
  2. You make the argument that a tax increase can actually save people money. For example, how much do you pay when you lose a tire or need a front end alignment after hitting a pothole? Or how do you value the time lost? Or gas burned sitting in traffic? It’s likely less than the tax increase one might proposed for transportation. Would you pay $75/year, or even $225/year (based on average 15,000 miles per year driven in a vehicle getting 20 miles to the gallon) for a 10-30-cent increase in the gas tax, which has declined in value over the last 20+ years? This is a tougher sell in non-urban areas, but the votes you lose there likely would be more than made up in urban areas. Is 30 cents enough? It’s a good start.
  3. Be specific on what they’ll gain. It’s not just we’ll improve transportation but what projects would you build, when would they be finished and exactly how much time and money might they save the average driver? People reject taxes in a knee-jerk fashion because they don’t believe they’ll get anything for it. Saying that a tax increase “will fix our transportation problem” is too vague. You need to be specific. You also might suggest tax trade-offs. What taxes or fees would you reduce to guarantee adequate transportation funds?
  4. Emphasize other cost savings. Tell them what you’ll cut in the overall budget to minimize the need for tax increases. If you emphasize only the income generation, you’re a tax-and-spender. Democrats especially can gain traction by talking about areas that can be cut. Today in Virginia, it’s prisons, as Kaine has learned.
  5. Attack the other guy’s empty promises. I am amazed that not once did Deeds point out that what McDonnell is proposing is the “borrow-and-spend” approach of the Bush administration. That’s what his bond program is all about. You need to service that debt. The money must come from somewhere.
  6. In Virginia, I think you can make the argument that so goes NOVA’s transportation, so goes its economy. And so it goes, so goes southern Virginia schools. NOVA pays for them.
  7. And, yes, speak slowly. Give people a chance to hear your argument.

Bottom line is we need to make that argument. I heard one Democratic leader say after the debate that “everyone in that room knows Deeds is open to a tax increase, but he can’t say it.” So do a lot of voters who are sitting on the fence. He needs the ones who may be open to a tax increase to fix transportation. But they won’t know what he plans to do until he tells them.

There may be another opening for Deeds in McDonnell’s antipathy towards unions. Many government workers are unionized. And I believe a lot of them live in Virginia.

Deeds missed another opportunity. When he mentions that McDonnell opposed Warner’s tax increases, he needs to tell Virginians where we’d be today without them. The hole would be much deeper and the cuts more draconian

One final note: I appreciate the nod Deeds gave to this blog, when he said he was a “commonsense Democrat.”

That’s what he meant, wasn’t it?