Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Democratic state chairmen yesterday said they support former Sen. John Edwards’ plan to increase taxes on upper-income Americans if he wins the presidency in 2008, a plan backed by the party’s House and Senate leaders.

Those who responded to a survey of Democratic chairmen across the country said they approved of the plan presented Sunday by the former North Carolina senator on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to raise the top tax rates on salaries of more than $200,000 and possibly other tax levies as well.

But many state party leaders don’t want to step into the politically charged issue of raising taxes, at least at this early juncture in the presidential-election cycle — even if their party’s congressional leadership has embraced the idea.

“Raising taxes is a really tough decision, but I think Edwards is just being realistic, considering the Iraq war costs and the war debt we’ve got. We’ve got to pay it,” said Chris Wittington, the Louisiana Democratic state chairman.

“If he’s starting at $200,000, there aren’t many of those people at that level in Louisiana who would be affected by it. We’re a poor state,” he said. But he cautioned that just talking generally about raising taxes was politically risky.

“He’s got to define his message to make sure he’s clear about who will be affected. He needs to narrow it down to those who will be affected,” he said.

When asked on “Meet the Press” how he would pay for his universal health care proposal, Mr. Edwards said, “We’ll have to raise taxes.”

Democrats ruefully remember what happened to former Vice President Walter Mondale, their 1984 presidential nominee, who lost 49 states to President Reagan after he called for raising taxes on anyone making more than $60,000 a year and imposing a 10 percent surtax on people earning more than $100,000.

While Democrats have criticized Mr. Bush’s tax cuts since their enactment in 2001, collectively defining them as “tax cuts for the wealthy,” they have not criticized the lower tax rates for low- to middle-income earners or the doubling of the $500-per-child tax credit for families. Democratic leaders have said they would only repeal the tax cuts for those earning $200,000 or more annually — sharply higher than the near-middle-class tax threshold Mr. Mondale set in his ill-fated campaign.

“If Edwards is proposing to raise income taxes just on upper-level income people or doing away with tax breaks for the wealthy, there aren’t that many out here in proportion to the number of middle-class people,” said Patricia Waak, the Colorado Democratic chairwoman.

“It’s the middle-income people who bear the brunt of high costs for things like food and gas prices. People in the Democratic Party feel that giving tax breaks to the rich is not a policy they want to pursue,” she said.

Still, Miss Waak added, “I have not seen his proposal, so I would not want to speak to this for the people of this state.”

“I don’t think it’s going to hurt Democrats to talk about paying for what you get. The vast majority of the American people believe that basic health care should be an American right,” said Joe Turnham, the Alabama Democratic chairman.

“What you are seeing from the Democrats is a stand for fiscal responsibility that says that any new programs or tax cuts have to be paid for,” he said.

Other Democratic presidential contenders had little to say about Mr. Edwards’ plan, even though most of them have said universal health care should and will be a top priority during the 2008 campaign.

“I haven’t read his proposal yet,” said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who gave a speech on the issue two weeks ago.

“Regardless of what combination of policies and proposals get us to this goal, we must reach it. We must act. And we must act boldly,” he said.

But Sen Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut dodged the tax question Monday night. “I don’t know what’s in it,” he said. When pressed if taxes should be raised to pay for health care generally, he shook his head and said, “I haven’t seen it. I’ll look at it.”

Mr. Edwards also was looking at other revenue-raising opportunities, saying that “we need to do a much better job of collecting the taxes that are already owed,” including targeting what he said were large sums of unpaid capital-gains taxes.

But the day after Mr. Edwards called for repealing the Bush tax cuts for people in the highest income brackets, conservative tax-cutters condemned his proposal.

“Americans don’t want higher taxes. They said ‘no’ to Mondale in ‘84; they’ll say no to Edwards in 2008; and they’ll say no to any candidate — Republican or Democrat — who runs on a platform of more government and higher taxes,” said the Club for Growth, a tax-cut advocacy group.

c Christina Bellantoni contributed to this article.

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