President Barack Obama has once again proposed extending the Bush tax cuts on most Americans but letting them expire for those who make $250,000 a year or more. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney issued a "pre-buttal" of Mr. Obama's announcement, insisting that the tax cuts should remain in effect for all. And hanging over the entire discussion is the risk that if Congress does nothing, everyone's taxes will go up on Jan. 1.
Given the three options, Mr. Obama's position is surely the best one. The well-to-do (and the nation as a whole) did fine under the old, Clinton-era tax rates, and maintaining the Bush tax cuts for upper-tier earners would cost $150 billion next year with little benefit to the economy.
But it's a shame, and a sign of what is so disappointing about this presidential election so far, that those three options are the only ones we've got. Even if a miracle occurred and Congress agreed to Mr. Obama's plan, we would find ourselves back in the same partisan fight a year from now, without addressing the nation's fundamental problems. The president's proposal may be a good tactical move in the context of the current presidential election — it forces Republicans to explain why they would rather risk tax rates going up on everybody than allow an increase for the wealthiest Americans — but it offers no real vision for how we as a nation are going to get out of the bind presented by a weak economy and huge budget deficits.
The president's gambit and Mr. Romney's reaction to it are a continuation of the uninspiring dynamic of this election. Both sides have apparently concluded that the best way to win a close election is by playing it safe, and that means no big, new ideas. What passes for vision from Mr. Romney is repealing the president's health care law and replacing it (with what, he doesn't exactly say) and reviving the economy, evidently by the sheer act of not being Barack Obama. And what Mr. Obama has offered us is not the hope for a new kind of politics that he embodied in 2008 but a promise of four more years of fighting for the middle class. By doing what? Who knows?
It would be nice if, instead of standing in front of a carefully selected backdrop of middle-class taxpayers and small business owners and announcing his fealty to an old idea, the president had used the occasion to make his re-election campaign about tackling the nation's big problems once and for all. Or if Mr. Romney had, instead of reiterating his position in a well-worn fight on Capitol Hill, suggested a new way forward. Either side, for example, would be welcome to propose a restructuring and simplification of the tax code that lowers the rates but raises new revenue by eliminating the laundry list of exemptions, deductions and loopholes that now provide American businesses with the incentive to invest in accountants, lawyers and lobbyists rather than new products and services.
Nothing much is going to happen in Washington before November, but if the candidates don't make this election about big ideas, nothing of consequence is going to happen after that either.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun