PHILADELPHIA — Facing a budget crisis, the president strode to the microphone and gently told Americans that he planned to raise their taxes. "Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share?" he asked. "Or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates and higher unemployment?"
He even used the C word —"compromise" — to make his case.
The speech could have been delivered yesterday. But the year was 1982, and the president who proposed swapping $99 billion in higher taxes for $280 billion in reduced spending was not Barack Obama but Ronald Reagan.
How could the standard-bearer of conservative politics call for raising taxes when politicians who do so today are berated as traitors?
One reason is the current economy, which makes any kind of price hike — whether for gasoline or schools or soft drinks — a burden on ordinary Americans. Another: memories of George H.W. Bush and Walter F. Mondale.
Their defeats remind leaders that raising taxes is almost always political kryptonite. As humorist Dave Barry wrote, Mondale, "on the advice of shrewd campaign strategists from the planet Zargon," promised to raise taxes if elected president. The only state Mondale won was his native Minnesota.
But even traditionally liberal-leaning Minnesota is no longer safe for tax-raising talk. The state government there has been shut down for nearly two weeks now, strangled by debate over whether to raise taxes on the wealthy.
Making a mention of tax increases in this climate is an invitation to a brawl.
"In the last 10 to 15 years, it's become anathema," said former New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio, whose own support for tax hikes contributed to his narrow re-election loss in 1993 to a centrist Republican, Christie Whitman.
Economic woes and tax talk have always been a volatile mix. When Florio ran, protesters carried signs with his photo surrounded by swastikas.
Even so, some politicians blame one man for much of today's vitriol: Grover Norquist, leader of Americans for Tax Reform.
About 1,600 state and federal officeholders have taken Norquist's pledge against raising taxes, according to the group's website, which prominently features Reagan's image.
Florio argues that Norquist and others have exploited the economic insecurity of the working and middle classes to protect the wealthy. "You have the combination of the (anti-taxers') ideological fervor... and an affordability crisis, where people are trying to figure out how to pay for basic things like gasoline or a college education," he said. "All of those things sort of make sort of a toxic potion whenever you talk about taxes."
And there lies the problem — not language, or elections, but promises that our current fiscal condition makes nearly impossible to keep.
Leonard Burman, a Syracuse University economist who worked in the Clinton administration, said voters didn't want huge cuts in programs such as Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. Only a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts will work, he said.
Of course, the voters who swept anti-tax candidates into office might beg to differ. Nate Benefield, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg, Pa., think tank that advocates for limited government, says that's because Americans are overtaxed.
Benefield favors restructuring the so-called entitlement programs to make them financially sustainable.
But Charles Morris, a financial author who has been credited with having predicted the downturn, said he has always been stunned that Americans believed their taxes were high.
Of the 30 largest industrial countries, he said, we have one of the lowest tax burdens.
"A fair conclusion would be that Americans are not heavily taxed, that the current tax code is reasonably progressive, but certainly not confiscatory. And that if Americans need to raise taxes to reduce growing federal deficits, increases across the board would be the obvious place to start," Morris wrote recently. "In other words, what is all the shouting about?"