At Valley High School in this second-tier swing state, the probable next president of the United States is misleading an audience about tax policy.
In the midst of a stem-winder of a stump speech, Gov. George W. Bush calls for Iowans Mark and Vicki Skiles to stand.
They pay $8,220 in federal taxes, Bush says. Under his plan the couple will save $3,000 a year. There are cheers.
You know how much they'll save under Gore's plan? Bush asks.
"Not one dime!" he cries.
And the crowd boos.
He performs this bit of theater everywhere he goes, from sea to shining sea. In the midst of almost every one of his rallies, Bush looks down at his notecard and calls for one of these "tax families" to stand, to illustrate the point that his plan will better benefit the working men and women than the "targeted" tax cuts of Vice President Al Gore.
There are many requirements to be a Bush campaign "tax family": no kids in day care or college or under the age of one, no sick parents or children at home, no one at night school and an income roughly between $35,000 and $70,000. A Washington Post story from early September reported that the Bush campaign's requirements for its "tax families" effectively eliminated 85 percent of the population in that income bracket.
One of the Bush campaign's most reliable qualities is its determination, however, which you can be forgiven for interpreting as shamelessness. The Bush campaign doesn't seem to care how unrepresentative its tax families are, how fundamentally deceptive Bush is therefore being when he introduces each one to America. Wednesday night's rally, in the Bill Coldiron Fieldhouse in West Des Moines, is no exception.
Probe deeper into the circumstances of the Skiles family, and it becomes clear that not only is the brood demographically atypical, but the charge that under Gore's plan they'll save "not one dime" is false on its face.
Gore's plan will match $1 for every $3 Mark and Vicki save for retirement, for instance, up to a maximum of a $1,000 tax credit. Since Mark and Vicki save approximately $6,500 a year for retirement and education, right there they'll have a $1,000 tax credit, precisely 10,000 "dimes."
The Bush campaign rebuts this with complete disingenuousness, arguing that the tax credit isn't a tax cut. "In reality, it's new spending," says the Skiles fact sheet, which the Bush campaign does not exactly make handy and available. It is the only time I've ever heard a Republican refuse to categorize a tax credit as a tax cut. Sen. William Roth, R-Del., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee would certainly disagree with Bush's pooh-poohing of the tax credit.
Even acknowledging that the Skiles family will get a $1,000 tax credit from Gore, however, the larger point -- that the Skiles will pay less in taxes under Bush than under Gore -- is true. And it gets to a fundamental weakness in the Gore campaign's tax plan, which is how complicated it is, how easily it plays into the hands of the GOP's portrait of the Democratic Party as one that wants to let the federal government run your life.
Indeed, the Bush tax plan is so simple, so easily comprehended, that even Bush himself can explain it.
Not so with their opponents. "You have to be a CPA to understand what he just said," joked Bush's running mate, former defense secretary Dick Cheney, during the vice presidential debate against Gore's No. 2, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. "The fact of the matter is, the plan is so complex that ordinary Americans are never going to ever figure out what they even qualify for. It's a classic example of wanting to have a program, in this case a tax program, that will in fact direct people to live their lives in certain ways rather than empowering them to make decisions for themselves."
That's one way to look at it, certainly. Another is that the Gore-Lieberman plan provides help specifically in areas where families earning less than $100,000 a year -- 90 percent of the American people -- need a little extra help. Both the Bush and Gore plans provide about $500 billion for these families, but Gore likes to point out that Bush provides another trillion in tax cuts for those who earn more than $100,000.
Regardless of where you come down on the two plans -- and certainly Bush seems to have won the philosphical debate on this issue, at the very least -- the Bush campaign's use of carefully screened families is, in a larger demographic context, dishonest. Take this slice of Americana: Mark Skiles, raised in Taiwan by his missionary parents, is a computer consultant who brings home about $85,000 a year. His wife, Vicki, is a homemaker who home-schools their four children. They are in the top 20 percent of the income bracket.
Some of the larger points about the Bush plan providing more tax relief for the Skiles than the Gore plan are completely fair. The Bush plan will immediately reduce their tax rate from 28 percent to 25 percent, for instance.
But the vast majority of the Skiles' tax savings under Bush -- $2,000 of the $3,000 -- comes because they have four children -- Allisyn, 8; Andrew, 11; Amanda 13; and Ashley, 14 -- and Bush's plan doubles the per-child tax credit from $500 to $1,000 per child.
Families with four children, however, represent only 7 percent of all families with children and about 2 percent of American households.
Even more significant is that the Bush campaign made sure to select a family in which all four children are within an age range that makes Gore's "targeted" tax cuts irrelevant to their circumstances today.
If they had a child under the age of 1, stay-at-home mom Vicki Skiles would receive a $500 tax credit -- but the Bush campaign weeded out all families with kids under 1. If they earned under $60,000 and wanted to enroll younger children in day care, they'd be eligible for an expanded day-care tax credit.
If Amanda and Ashley were enrolled in an after-school program, the Skiles family would be eligible for Gore's 20 percent tax credit for kids from 12 to 16 in after-school programs. If the programs cost $4,800 a year, the family could deduct $960 from their taxes.
Just as the Bush campaign made sure not to pick a family with kids young enough to be eligible for any of Gore's tax credit expansions for kids in their early years, so too did the Bushies pick a family without kids in college who would be eligible for Gore's tuition tax credit. When Ashley heads off to college in September 2004, for instance, her parents would be eligible, under Gore's plan, to either make a $10,000 deduction off their income for tuition, or take a 28 percent tax credit, which the Gore plan increases from the current 20 percent credit.
Since Mark Skiles makes $85,000 a year, he is within the $80,000 to $100,000 income bracket wherein the current 20 percent college tuition tax credit is phased out. But the Gore plan ups the phaseout bracket to the $100,000 to $120,000 range, so he would be eligible.
Having nothing to do with the Skiles brood, there are other significant differences between the Gore and Bush tax plans that can skew either way. The current "marriage penalty," for instance, takes two single people, each taking the standard tax deduction of $4,550, and screws them when they get hitched, reducing their deduction to $7,600 per couple. Both Gore and Bush would get rid of this bit of unfairmess.
Gore's plan would simply allow the same individual standard deduction rate to stand, letting couples deduct $9,100 total. Bush would add to the current $7,600 deduction, letting the couple deduct 10 percet of the lower wage-earner's salary to a maximum of $3,000. So under Bush, some families -- those in the higher income brackets -- will be able to deduct $10,600, certainly more than the $9,100 they'd get under Gore. Conversely, those on the lower end of the middle class would get to deduct less under Bush than under Gore. It's a mixed bag.
One thing, however, is pretty clear. There are two tax families that Bush has yet to trot out would certainly get a big tax cut under Bush and "not one dime" under Gore. They are the Bush family of Austin, Texas, who would save about $50,000 under his plan, and the Cheney family of Jasper, Wyo., who'd get about $270,000. (That's based on their 1999 tax returns). That doesn't include what they'd save from Bush's proposed elimination of the tax on estates worth more than $675,000.
"It's a big difference between us," Cheney said in his debate exchange with Lieberman. "They like tax credits, we like tax reform and tax cuts." It's not tough to figure out why.