Sanders gambles on raising taxes

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Bernie SandersBernie SandersRefereeing MMA can’t really be on the top of Congress’s to-do list Sanders clashes with California radio hosts in interview The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s explicit call for tax hikes on the middle class is a political gamble that flies in the face of conventional political wisdom.

While academics and strategists believe Sanders’s calls to raise taxes across the board would be more harmful in a general election, some suggested it could cost him Democratic primary voters as well.

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“Even Democratic primary voters don’t want to pay more taxes,” said Democratic political strategist Brad Bannon, who is not affiliated with a presidential campaign.

Sanders, an Independent Vermont senator and self-professed Democratic Socialist, has proposed a number of tax increases, most of which target high earners and corporations.

But he has also called for paid leave and universal healthcare that would be funded in part by tax increases on the middle class.

“We will raise taxes. Yes we will,” Sanders said this week at a town hall in Iowa — just a week before the caucuses. Sanders is locked in a battle with Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonRomney: I fight Trump so I 'can sleep at night’ Scarborough: Sanders debate a ‘great warmup’ for Trump Navy sailor pleads guilty to espionage for submarine photos MORE to win the first contest in the Democratic primary.

The comments drew immediate comparisons to remarks by Walter Mondale when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1984.

Mondale was seeking to prevent Ronald Reagan from winning re-election.

“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did,” Mondale said.

The Democrat ended up getting crushed in the election, with some blaming his comments on taxes.

President Obama, who like Sanders ran as a progressive Democrat, was still cautious with what he said about taxes.

When campaigning in 2008, he said he would not raise taxes on those making more than $250,000. And he framed his desire to let tax cuts expire for high earners not as a tax increase but as a restoration of rates to their previous level.

Clinton, Sanders’s main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has similarly said she would only raise taxes on those making more than $250,000.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi quickly distanced her caucus from Sanders’ proposals, saying “we’re not running on any platform of raising taxes” and that single-payer healthcare is “not going to happen.”

The Sanders campaign appears to believe the calls for tax hikes will resonate with a Democratic base that has been energized by his calls to change Washington, rein-in Wall Street and fight inequality.

The gamble is that the Sanders agenda, and his candidness in talking about it, will help him with the Democratic primary.

“The more people learn about Senators Sanders’ plans, I think the more that they like them,” Warren Gunnels, Sanders’ policy director, told The Hill. He added that if Franklin Roosevelt had taken the same tax pledge as Clinton, there would be no Social Security.

The tax for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave would amount to $1.61 per week for a typical middle-class worker and is also included by bills pending in Congress with many sponsors. And the campaign says that the healthcare “premium” for a typical middle class family would be about $38 per month but would lead to annual savings of about $5,800.

Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said Sanders’ proposals could be a net plus in the primary, since there are a large number of primary voters who are comfortable having taxes go up in order to pay for more government services.

“I suspect that overall, it probably plays pretty well with the Democratic base,” he said.

Democratic primary voters tend to be the more active, and often more liberal, members of the party. A recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll found that 43 percent of likely Democratic Iowa caucus-goers would describe themselves as socialist.

But won’t Sanders’s calls for higher taxes hurt him in the general election?

If Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, Republicans would almost certainly pounce on Sanders’ remark during the general election.

“I’m sure the [Republican National Committee] has cut their 30-second ad,” said Penny Lee, a Democratic strategist who is not working for a presidential campaign but has donated to Clinton.

Some believe that in this unusual political cycle, the authenticity behind Sanders’s comments will help him.

“Bernie Sanders is an extremely unconventional candidate in an unconventional year,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Politicians tell voters what they want to hear. Bernie tells voters what they need to hear.”

Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer noted that Sanders is pitching to voters honesty as well as a need for bigger government and funding new services created.

“In many ways, he defies a lot of the conventional wisdom on what you can and can’t do,” he said.