When in doubt, tax the rich

Democratic presidential hopefuls called for higher taxes on the highest-paid Americans and on big corporations Thursday and agreed in an unusually cordial debate that any thought of balancing the federal budget would have to wait.

“We’re not going to be able to dig ourselves out” of Bush-era deficits in the next year or two, said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, one of six Democratic rivals sharing a stage for the final time before Iowa’s leadoff Jan. 3 caucuses.

Asked about the importance of eliminating deficits, Democrats responded by criticizing President Bush’s economic policies, including some of his tax cuts.

“I want to keep the middle class tax cuts” that Congress passed during President Bush’s tenure, said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. But she said she favors raising taxes for the wealthiest.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina readily agreed. “The truth of the matter is the tax policy has been established by the big corporations and the wealthiest Americans,” he said. “What we ought to be doing instead is getting rid of those tax breaks.”

Across 90 minutes, the fierce competition between the two Iowa front-runners shone through only once — when Obama was asked how he could offer a new type of foreign policy since several of his advisers once worked for President Clinton.

Hillary Clinton laughed out loud at that, and said with a smile, “I’m looking forward to hearing that.”

Obama, also smiling, waited for the laughter to die down before saying, “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.”

The discussion of taxes underscored the gulf between the two parties on economic issues. Republican candidates called repeatedly on Wednesday for elimination of the estate tax — which falls principally on the largest of estates — and reduction in the income tax on corporations.

Those differences will have to wait for the general election campaign, however. For now, all presidential hopefuls in both parties are concentrating with single-minded determination on their nomination races beginning with the Iowa caucuses on Jan 3 and the New Hampshire primary five days later.

Obama, Clinton and Edwards are in a tight race in Iowa, according to numerous pre-caucus polls. Richardson, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden trail badly.

After months of campaigning, the six debaters stuck to well-rehearsed lines, passing up opportunities to attack one another and periodically illustrating their points with Iowa-specific examples.

Dodd noted that the cost of attending the University of Iowa had risen 147 percent in the past six or seven years. Obama, addressing energy issues, squeezed in a reference to a new wind turbine manufacturing plant in Keokuk with 400 jobs. Biden said his first trip to Iowa was a generation ago, when former Sen. John Culver ran in 1974. Biden didn’t say so, but Culver’s son, Chet, is the current governor, neutral in the race for the party’s presidential nomination.

Asked how they would have voted on a Senate proposal earlier this week to shift some crop subsidy payments into conservation and other programs, Dodd and Biden said they would have supported it. Obama and Clinton expressed opposition — and the New York senator made a point of saying she had generally been following the lead of Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin on a big farm bill.

Only Richardson said balancing the budget would be a high priority. He noted that as governor in New Mexico, he is required to do so, and he called for a presidential line-item veto, a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, the elimination of “corporate welfare” and elimination of congressional earmarks to help get rid of federal red ink.

Dodd jabbed at Richardson, saying the federal government is “much more complicated than state budgets. What we need to be doing is growing our economy, giving people a sense of confidence again.”

Biden was one of several Democrats who noted that the Iraq War is costing $10 billion a month — money that he said could be spent on education, health care and other programs, or allocated to deficit reduction.

The federal budget ran a surplus of $127 billion the year Bush took office. The deficit hit a record high of $413 billion in 2004 before declining to $162.8 billion for the 2007 budget year, which ended last Sept. 30.

Republicans have long blamed an economic slowdown, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a stock market crash for the country’s descent into deficit spending and have said tax cuts have promoted economic growth. Democrats contend Bush’s tax cuts needlessly drained the treasury of revenue, while disproportionately helping the wealthy and corporations.

The field of debaters was trimmed to six at the direction of the newspaper that hosted it. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was excluded because he does not have a campaign office in the state. His supporters protested the decision, but to no avail.

It was not clear why the same rules did not exclude former Ambassador Alan Keyes from the Register’s debate of Republican candidates on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the newspaper did not immediately return a telephone call or e-mail.

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