As the recent presidential primaries showed, Republicans disagree on a host of issues. Supporters of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul see the world very differently from one another.
But there’s one thing that unites almost all Republicans -- a belief that taxes are too high and certainly nobody needs to raise them.
That’s something that U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., needs to keep in mind.
On Tuesday, the freshman congressman was asked a question at a town hall event in Pompano Beach. It was about balancing the federal budget without raising taxes. West’s answer certainly offers little comfort for conservatives who do not want to see taxes rise -- and certainly not in a struggling economy.
“There are many things we can do in Washington, D.C.,” West replied on Tuesday night. “Last year, as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, by April I found three wasteful programs in the Department of Defense. It saved the American taxpayer $357 million over 10 years.
"But, the question is this. If every single member in the House of Representatives, every single member in the Senate, went in on the committee of jurisdiction and oversight and they did the same thing, find $350 million in wasteful programs over the next 10 years, get it and eliminate it, think what happens for our budget.
"We get ourselves on the road to being able to balance this thing. Now, once we get to a point where we have waxed out the federal government, we have eliminated a lot of that waste, fraud and abuse, then it certainly comes to the American people to talk about raising taxes as a means to make sure we keep our debt and our deficit at a manageable level.”
West is on the right track on cutting waste, but said nothing about actually taking a scalpel to the federal government and slashing away. With so much government spending, Congress needs to go after more than the “waste, fraud and abuse” litany that politicians always invoke -- but do little to cut.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely allied with the Obama administration, tried to make political hay out of this, highlighting West’s comments. Over at Think Progress, the organization’s in-house outlet, Scott Keyes seemed frankly astounded, labeling West “perhaps the most beloved member of the freshman Republican class” and calling his comments a “startling announcement” that “he’s willing to discuss raising taxes in order to address the nation’s budget shortfall.”
West’s teams looked to clarify the congressman’s comments on Wednesday.
"Congressman West opposes tax increases and believes we must balance the budget and solve our debt crisis by reducing the explosive spending increases of recent years and returning the federal government to its constitutionally mandated obligations,” Tim Edison, West’s campaign manager, insisted to Sunshine State News on Wednesday.
“If this can be accomplished, there will be no way to even justify a discussion of tax increases. Economic growth and spending restraint are the answer to America’s fiscal woes, not tax increases. Washington politicians have proven time and again that they can’t be trusted with Americans' hard-earned tax dollars. Giving them more will only lead to increased unemployment, more wasteful spending and a bigger federal government."
Politicians who have called to raise taxes in order to tackle the nation’s fiscal problems have won the applause of editorial boards for their political courage but have garnered little in the way of actual electoral success -- just ask John Anderson who made that the centerpiece of his independent bid for the White House back in 1980 or Paul Tsongas who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. Earlier in the 2012 political cycle, Jon Huntsman tried the same tactic in his bid for the Republican nomination and he floundered badly.
West should know that he is touching the third rail of the GOP by even hinting that he is for raising taxes. After his memorable “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge in 1988, George H.W. Bush paid the price for actually doing that in 1992 when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan gave him trouble in the Republican primaries. Some conservatives backed Ross Perot or went fishing instead of backing Bush that November.
Florida also provides an example of a Republican who raised taxes and paid the political price. When he won the 1986 gubernatorial race, Bob Martinez was the first member of his party to preside over Florida in two decades and only the second Republican to serve as governor since Reconstruction. But Martinez backed a sales tax on services and, while it was repealed, he never recovered and lost his bid for a second term in 1990.
To his credit, West has said that this is not the time to raise taxes. He also should be able to hold on to his base despite his comments about taxes and even a surprisingly low rating from the Club for Growth for his congressional record. While West faces opposition in the Republican primary, conservatives are not likely to forget that Martin County Sheriff Bob Crowder, who is also seeking the GOP nod, backed Democratic nominee Alex Sink in 2010 in what turned out to be the closest gubernatorial contest in more than 165 years of Florida statehood. Tea party activist Everett Wilkinson has made noises about running as an independent.
With his base secure and with West’s team clearing up the comments, the congressman should be fine for the moment with conservatives. But he needs to avoid that third rail.
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.