Two blue state tax defeats refute those calling 2020 a pro-left referendum. In the seemingly fertile fields of California and Illinois, the left’s pro-tax advocates sought tax increases on the wealthy only to lose both.
If these current state failures are insufficient, then past Washington ones should serve to caution those seeking to spin a narrow Trump defeat into a broad embrace of the left’s high-tax agenda.
Depending on their view of half a glass, some are seeking to credit the left with Joe Biden’s close November win, or absolve the left from Democrats’ lackluster overall showing. Two blue state tax defeats should encourage both to see the glass as closer to empty.
In California, the lost cause of the Left Coast, tax advocates pushed state ballot initiative Proposition 15 to increase property taxes on big business. The effort was intended to be the beginning of the end of Proposition 13, which decades ago limited property tax increases that had been forcing state residents from their homes. For history buffs, Proposition 13 is the last man standing of the state’s Reagan legacy, so its unwinding would have delivered the left a symbolic, as well as a substantive, victory.
The proposal was known as “split roll” because it promised to hit only big businesses. In reality, Proposition 15 was an old school version of one of the left’s favorite contemporary ideas: A wealth tax. It went after wealth in its classic — as well as its least mobile and easiest taxed — form: property.
Further, it hid behind the left’s favorite human shield, education. It also had a who’s who of backers. Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom both endorsed it, Mark Zuckerberg backed it, as did the California Teachers Association, while unions and Democrats have pursued this for decades. Still, it lost.
In Illinois, a similar story unfolded. Gov. J.B. Pritzker backed and bankrolled a dual initiative to jettison the state’s flat income tax (4.95%) and replace it with a progressive one that escalated with income (up to 7.99%). Mr. Pritzker had campaigned and won on what he dubbed “the fair tax” in 2018.
Last year, the Illinois State Assembly passed the flat tax’s repeal and the higher tax, and Mr. Pritzker signed both. This year, Mr. Pritzker threatened massive budget shortfalls without the people’s passage. All that was needed was for the people’s assent at the polls. Like California’s, it never came.
In both cases, voters viewed the higher tax proposals as the camel’s nose under the tent, knowing the rest of the camel lurked behind it. Despite proponents’ promises, voters did not believe that once admitted the tax-hike camel would stay on the wealthy’s side of the tent.
Both tax rejections are stunning, not just for their overreach, but where they underperformed. As Californians were voting for Mr. Biden by an almost 2-1 margin (64% to 34%), they were voting down Proposition 15, 52% to 48%. As Illinois was going 57% to 41% for Mr. Biden, the state was voting down Mr. Pritzker’s “fair tax” 53% to 47%.
There is a clear warning in the California and Illinois results for the left and those foolish enough to listen to their siren song of higher taxes. If today’s blue state rebukes are insufficient, then Washington’s from the last two Democratic administrations should suffice.
Fresh on the heels of knocking off incumbent President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton raised federal taxes in 1993. A year later, Democrats lost 54 House seats, nine Senate seats and control of Congress for the first time in four decades.
Following President George W. Bush into the White House, with the biggest Democratic win since LBJ, Barack Obama spread out his tax increasess. He raised them first in Obamacare, but delayed their implementation. He then allowed payroll taxes to rise broadly and income tax rates to rise on the wealthy in 2013. The result was that he spread out his losses but did not escape them — or losing Congress. Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010, and then lost 13 House seats and 10 Senate seats in 2014.
Two blue states’ rejection of so-called progressive tax increases on big businesses and the wealthy dramatically show the left’s failure in this election. Even with the political stars seemingly aligned over their own terrain, they could not prevail. As an addendum to these microcosm defeats, Washington history reminds that the American macrocosm is even less receptive to raising taxes.
America’s left is fighting to regain the momentum that swelled Democratic primary ranks just a year ago. The reality is that things have been slowing ever since. This November in California and Illinois, things already appear to have begun going backward.
• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.
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