George W. Bush, Middle Class Champion

Less than one-fourth of the Bush tax cuts benefit "the rich"


So: Where does George W. Bush go to collect his apology?

You're thinking: Apology? What &%$#@  apology?

Why, the one he's owed by the countless liberal Democrats who slammed him for pushing "tax cuts for the rich" in 2001 and 2003. Boy, were they hot under the collar!

Start with Paul Krugman, the liberal conservatives love to hate. In 2003 he spilled more than 7,000 words in the pages of The New York Times magazine denouncing "The Tax-Cut Con."  "The selling of the [Bush] tax cuts has depended heavily on chicanery," he insisted. "The administration has carried out a very successful campaign to portray these tax cuts as mainly aimed at middle-class families…. The reality is that [the] tax cuts mainly benefit the very affluent."

The Gray Lady herself agreed—arguing that while Bush had sold the tax cuts as "primarily benefiting middle-class families," in fact, "the numbers show the opposite."

"Big tax cuts for the rich, sacrifices for everybody else," sniffed Leon Panetta, currently Defense Secretary but then the lowly chairman of the House Budget Committee. Al Gore agreed that the cuts were a "redistribution of wealth from the middle class." Ditto presidential candidate Howard Dean, who said in 2003 that "most middle-class people never got a tax cut from George Bush." Countless others added their voices to the chorus.

Fast-forward to the present. Washington is having another budget fight, and the biggest sticking point is taxes. The Bush tax cuts are set to expire on Jan. 1. Republicans want to extend them all. (Apparently the party had its fingers crossed behind its back when it adopted the 10-year sunset provision. Big shock, right?)

President Obama is willing to extend the Bush tax cuts, too—but only for those making $250,000 or less. But hey, guess what? It turns out doing this will, in the President's own words, keep taxes lower for a whopping 98 percent of the American people. 

The White House has even produced a convenient infographic on "Extending Middle-Class Tax Cuts" to make that point. The president, it says, "has called on Congress to act now to extend middle-class tax cuts and to not hold our economy and the middle class hostage." It urges "continuing tax cuts for 98 percent of American families." And just in case you didn't get the message the first three times, it points out that "President Obama's plan will make sure … 98 percent of American families" will continue to "fully benefit from the income tax cuts." 

Back in 2007, Obama said, "the Bush tax cuts—people didn't need them, and they weren't even asking for them." A few days ago he insisted: "We've got to make sure that taxes don't go up on middle-class families." Perhaps he has, as they say,  grown in office.

Like good soldiers, many liberals quickly have fallen in line. For instance, ThinkProgress says Republicans are "Holding the Middle Class Hostage." The President, it says, has "called on Republicans in the House to immediately pass a bill extending tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans…. House Republicans are literally the only thing standing in the way of trillions of dollars in tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans."

Liberals aren't the only ones who have changed positions, by the way. Republican Sen. John McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts because he wanted to "see much more of this tax cut shared by working Americans…. It still devotes too much of it to the wealthiest Americans." McCain later concluded extending the tax cuts was a good idea—once he started running for President himself.

To be fair, these two decade-apart positions are not entirely incompatible. Bush cut the tax bills of the rich by much bigger dollar amounts than the tax bills of everyone else. Still, more middle-class people got a tax cut than rich people, and many of them got a bigger reduction in percentage terms, too: The top tax rate fell 4.6 percentage points; the lowest rate fell 5, and the second-lowest rate fell 13.

As a result, The Joint Committee on Taxation says extending the middle- class tax cuts will shave $2.7 trillion in revenue over 10 years. The White House says ending the tax cuts for the richest 2 percent would raise $849 billion over a decade. In short, less than one-fourth of the Bush tax cuts benefit "the rich."

But you'd never have known that latter point from the way Bush's critics talked at the time.