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The Democrats May Inherit a Windfall

August 27, 2000|ROBERT S. McELVAINE | Robert S. McElvaine is a historian at Millsaps College, Jackson, Miss. His latest book, "Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Shaping of History," will be published by McGraw-Hill in October

George W. Bush and the Republican Party have been left dazed by the sudden turnaround in the campaign. The resurgence of Al Gore seems to be based on the appeal of his populist message. This caught the Republicans off guard because the conventional wisdom has been that such a strategy could not work in times of prosperity. As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

In reality, it is generally in periods when the middle class feels financially secure that Americans have been willing to address social problems.

The Republicans showed just how wedded they are to their view of the public mood last week when they sent their repeal of the federal estate tax to President Clinton for an expected veto. They still think they have the Democrats just where they want them on this issue. "A signature is a win for families . . . who are haunted by this unfair tax," a gleeful Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) proclaimed.

The Republicans see this giveaway to the children of the super-rich as an issue that cuts in their favor with voters. We shall see. No issue more squarely shows the difference between the parties and their presidential candidates. If the public is ready for the sort of appeal that Gore made in his acceptance speech, the estate tax repeal will prove to be a wonderful gift to the Democratic candidate.

Apart from their misreading of the history of the relationship between public support for reform and economic prosperity, the main reason the Republicans think this issue will help them is the success they have had thus far in defining it. The Republicans' deceptive marketing has succeeded in persuading a substantial portion of the electorate that the estate tax adversely affects the middle class, taxes the dead and is an unfair penalty on industry, talent and achievement. All three of these perceptions are totally wrong--and it shouldn't be hard for Gore and the Democrats to prove it so.

Currently, the first $675,000 of an individual's estate is exempt, and small businesses and family farms can pass $1.3 million tax-exempt to heirs. So the first important fact is that only the very wealthy--the richest 2%--leave estates large enough to be affected by this tax. One-tenth of 1% of the American people would get half the benefits of repeal.

Aside from real problems for small, family-run businesses and family farms (which can be addressed without repealing the tax), the estate tax has zero adverse effect on the middle class.

The critical point about this tax that has been obscured by the skillful disinformation campaign waged by its opponents is that it is not a tax on the dead. Estate taxes do not take a penny from the deceased. These are taxes on their living heirs. Far from a tax on industry, talent and achievement, the estate tax often falls on those whose only talent is selecting industrious and successful parents. We all know of ne'er-do-well children of rich people who never worked a day in their lives but drive new sports cars and spend with reckless abandon.

During the Ronald Reagan years we used to hear a great deal about "welfare queens." In fact, trust fund princes and princesses are far more common. They are the real beneficiaries of repeal of the estate tax. Of course, many heirs of very wealthy people are themselves talented and industrious. But why not let them use their talents to make their own fortunes instead of handing them an unfair advantage? We have taken welfare away from many of the poor; why give welfare (money they did nothing to earn) to the children of the rich?

Republicans assert that the estate tax is "un-American." They have it backward. As Americans and heirs to the revolution we commemorated last month, we ought to be philosophically opposed to repeal of the estate tax. Our ancestors fought against the concept of inherited position. The inheritance ethic runs completely counter to the work ethic that is a cherished American principle. If we believe that the United States should be a meritocracy in which people earn their own rewards, we have to prevent some of the competitors from being given a huge head start in the economic race. Ours is a nation of self-made people, not people who inherited their position from their ancestors.

This Republican legislation is designed to facilitate the establishment and perpetuation of an American aristocracy. Americans have traditionally looked with disdain on inherited wealth and position. We are a people who think that each person should make his or her own place. If the Gore campaign uses this gift from its opponents wisely, it can make clear to middle-class Americans whose side the Republicans are really on--and plainly it's not theirs.

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