The story Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro tell in their recent book, Death by a Thousand Cuts, vividly illustrates the problem. Graetz, a law professor at Yale University, and Shapiro, a political scientist at Yale, set out to unravel what on the surface appears a mystery: how the drive to repeal the estate tax, a measure that affects just 1 to 2 percent of the population and that is paid predominantly by the superrich, fueled a grassroots campaign that ended up throwing Democrats on the defensive. In a typical year the estate tax brought in enough revenue to fund one-half of the spending of the Department of Homeland Security or of the Education Department, or twice the amount of money spent on Pell grants (the largest federal program to help nonwealthy students attend college). It was, in other words, a tax the vast majority of Americans had a vested interest in keeping on the books, a point the Democrats should have had an easy time making.
Why didn't they? The simple explanation is that Republicans employed deception, renaming the estate tax the "death tax" to make it sound like something that affected everyone and trotting out people like Chester Thigpen, an African-American tree farmer from Mississippi and a grandson of slaves. (Not for the first time, color-blind Republicans managed to recover their vision when trying to put one over on Americans.) In 1995 Thigpen testified before Congress about how the estate tax was going to rob his family of the American dream. "We...want to leave the Tree Farm in our family," he explained. "We're not rich people." His story was promptly featured in a Heritage Foundation report, "Death Tax Devastation: Horror Stories from Middle-Class America." One detail not mentioned is that Thigpen didn't actually come to Washington on his own initiative or write his testimony--he was recruited by a man named Jim Martin, a GOP activist and Bush supporter who heads a seniors organization that was pushing for estate-tax repeal. Also omitted was that Thigpen's estate was not, in fact, taxable--he really wasn't rich, and so, as with the vast majority of family farmers and small-business owners, the measure wasn't going to cost him a nickel.
Even so, Graetz and Shapiro make a convincing case that propaganda was not the chief reason the campaign to repeal the estate tax gathered steam. A far more important factor was that throughout the 1990s, the only people in Washington making impassioned moral arguments about it were antitax conservatives, a committed network of true believers determined to convince Americans that it was wrong on principle for the government to tax anybody's assets when they died. Had there been voices on the other side arguing that levying a tax on inherited wealth in a nation where people pride themselves on self-reliance is both right and fair, the passion and energy of the repeal forces might have been neutralized. But there weren't. Democrats for the most part ignored the issue. When they finally got around to thinking about it, they weren't sure what their position should be, let alone how to frame it in compelling moral language. Not surprisingly, they were easily outmatched. "Talking to the strategists from both sides," write Graetz and Shapiro, "left the indelible impression that the Democrats facing the repealers were like the Yale football team trying to take on Ohio State."
This is what happens in politics when one side makes clear what it is fighting for and the other side does not, a seemingly self-evident point that has somehow been lost on the Democratic Party's leading strategists. Again and again during the 2004 presidential campaign, the swing voters so coveted by the Kerry campaign told pollsters and reporters that while they weren't crazy about Bush, at least they knew where he stood and what he believed. Even Kerry's most ardent supporters were hard-pressed to say this about him. The effort to tar Kerry as a "flip-flopper" worked in part because on issues like Iraq, eyes glued to the polls, this is exactly what he was.